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The Cash for Ash scandal report

Sir Patrick, a safe pair of hands, finds no-one was to blame

14 March 2020

The report by Sir Patrick Coughlin into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal in the North of Ireland was a farcical extension of the "Yes Minister" TV series showing how the masterly restructuring of language can be used to hide government corruption from the public.

Essentially the report accepted the vast majority of the claims made about the scam, but immediately judged that none of the actions were driven by corruption. In best sir Humphrey style the report was released on a Friday evening with the coronavirus crisis dominating the headlines. A great deal of focus was shifted to the civil service and was diffused by promising further enquiries and investigations.

Sir Patrick proved a safe pair of hands and the investigation a classic in the annals of whitewash. It seems to have escaped the notice of everyone that the defence, incompetence, is just as big a critique of Stormont as the actual corruption

It is accepted that the DUP oversaw a massive drain on public funds - up to £500 million - that benefited local industries closely linked to themselves and their own members and supporters. Sinn Fein did not protest these actions but acted to include themselves in the scheme. Both parties broke the law in the appointment of special advisers and in the use of those advisors to intimidate opponents.

The key finding is that the parties acted without malice and there was no corruption. Whistleblowers were pounding on the door, but the failure to respond was a systems failure, a failure of culture. Everyone meant well. Overlooked is the initial decision to copy and paste the English regulations on the scheme but to cut out the initial anti-corruption section that would have prevented the mass theft that followed. Also ignored was a practice by top civil servants of not minuting deals between Sinn Fein and the DUP - something that destroys any pretence of democratic accountability.

The fact is, RHI corruption has already been built in to the restoration of the Stormont administration. Because of that there is no criticism or complaint. The trajectory of the restored assembly is firmly based on inherent corruption that is accepted by all the parties.

This represents a serious pressure point on Sinn Fein, posing as a left party in the 26 counties. The Northern assembly is structured around sectarian horse trading and corruption and this will continue to be the pattern of its development.

Not only that, the new Assembly, carefully shrugging off criminal corruption, is implementing a program of austerity, "Fresh Start". The new programme for government, "New Decade, New Approach", involves a further wave of austerity that will seriously impact the working class in the North. Just how long Sinn Fein can pose as the champions of the working class either North or South is an open question.

That question is not posed at the moment because the Stormont stitch-up has many enablers. Chief among those is the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. ICTU themselves are silent and have a long history of sacrificing workers’ rights to support Stormont, including acceptance of the "Fresh Start" programme. Their website leaves comment to the top civil service union, the FDA. They back the report's conclusion of systems failure and declare themselves ready to cooperate with further investigations of their members.

The Communist Party is silent, but a close supporter, Tommy McKearney, sees the report as establishing the Stormont set-up as a failed political entity.  It should be noted that People before Profit,  with an MLA, Gerry Carroll, in Stormont,  calls for DUP First Minister, Arlene Foster, to resign, but ignores the role of Sinn Fein leader Michelle O'Neill and stays firmly inside the narrative of incompetence rather than sectarian corruption. This narrow focus is hardly surprising while the organisation demonstrates in Dublin for a "Left" Sinn Fein government.

Many of the organisations that claim to represent the working class are, like Sir Patrick Coughlin, managing language to avoid conclusions of endemic corruption.  Such a conclusion would force an end to support for the reform of the Northern Assembly or for a left government in the South led by Sinn Fein. The would come face to face with the only alternative - building a revolutionary party of the working class to fight capitalism and imperialism.

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