Newton Emerson: ‘Cash for Ash’ reveals fragility of North’s existence
Administrative incompetence a bigger threat to union than bomb everyone seems to be braced for
The annual loss from RHI, at just under £25 million (€29m), is mundane by Stormont standards. Photograph: Paul Faith.
Every Scottish schoolchild learns their country lost its independence not on the fields of Flodden or Culloden but on the shores of the Caribbean, in the doomed “Darien adventure” of 1698. That attempt to found a trading colony, near the present day Panama Canal, consumed 20 per cent of Scotland’s gross national product. The scheme’s total failure bankrupted most of the middle and ruling classes, who had thrown their savings into it in an act of passionate nationalism. The price of bailing them out was the 1707 Act of Union with England, in which brave hearts were overruled by saner heads.
Like most historical catastrophism this is a gross oversimplification. Few states fail for one reason alone, while what looks like the last straw is usually just a straw in the wind. Still, this tale gives the Scots a healthier perspective than the rest of Britain and Ireland. It teaches them that nations need not come and go on a tide of blood.
Nobody is suggesting that Stormont’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme is a Darien moment, beyond the cranks who predict partition’s demise every day. But RHI points to the possibility, perhaps the probability, that a fiasco of this nature is how Northern Ireland will eventually meet its fate.
Most attempts to comprehend the momentous changes underway in UK politics warn of a threat to the peace process, implying the start of a war process. After the Troubles, it is understandable to fear the North’s political settlement ending with a bang but this blinds us to the prospect of it ending with a twang – of some final strain being placed on an overloaded system, which simply stops.
In financial and administrative terms, RHI is hardly an unprecedented failure. Its loss is currently estimated at £490 million (€577m), spread over 20 years. Comparable sums have been squandered on other Stormont schemes and projects since devolution, with official reports revealing similar levels of incompetence. The annual loss from RHI, at just under £25 million (€29m), is mundane by Stormont standards. A more expensive scandal involving paramilitary funding was rumbling away before the heating story broke.
Yet that makes the outrage at this scandal all the more striking.
In 2014, the Northern Ireland Audit Office revealed that a new hospital in Fermanagh will rack up £488 million (€574m) in interest payments over 30 years due to the ludicrous way it was financed. Despite the almost identical sums to RHI and the far more emotive topic of direct waste to the National Health Service, this was met with little more than a shrug.
So if RHI is not the final straw, it is at least a straw in a gathering wind. How long can this continue, especially in the absence of any credible replacement government or form of government?
The assumption up to now has been “indefinitely”. Cost and incompetence have not been seen as existential factors for Northern Ireland. With a third of the region’s income received as subsidy, two Darien adventures a year are built into the system. It might not take much to expose this as a vulnerable sort of robustness.
There must be a context of fragility for catastrophism to have any meaning. The Republic’s epitaph was not being written during the bailouts of the past few years. The latest writer of Northern Ireland’s epitaph is Kevin Meagher, once an advisor to a Labour northern secretary and now editor of the Labour Uncut website. His book A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and why it will come about presents all the arguments familiar in Ireland to a British audience but his promotional interviews have been more interesting.
Meagher has zeroed in on the RHI affair as typical of something that would infuriate British politicians and taxpayers, if only it came to their attention.
Appearing on Pat Kenny’s Newstalk programme two weeks ago, he speculated that an English “city deal” devolution is a mechanism by which this could happen, as powerful mayors eye up Northern Ireland’s £10 billion subsidy and the arbitrary funding formula behind it.
There may be a strong element of wishful thinking about this, as the British Labour Party sees those mayoralties as a refuge from its Jeremy Corbyn catastrophe.
Nevertheless, Meagher is on the right track. The snapping of a rubber band inside the Heath Robinson contraption of the union seems much likelier to herald its demise than the bomb everyone seems to be subconsciously braced for, and much more imminent than the demographic changes nationalism has been waiting on forever.
In the interview Kenny did not pick up on this – all he had to add to Meagher’s comments was that you cannot be British “unless you are on the island of Britain”.
Well of course you can. What you cannot do is predict when you will suddenly be a Scotsman in Panama.