Newton Emerson: The North is riddled with nepotism

Practice is intrinsic and inevitable in such a very small place but we choose to ignore it

Alan McQuillan, a former deputy chief constable of the PSNI, says the level of “cronyism” in Northern Ireland’s public life creates an environment “in which corruption can thrive”.

Speaking to the News Letter in the wake of last week's Nama allegations, McQuillan said too many public posts are filled "by people who simply have the right political connections".

He warned that a lack of transparency on party donations – kept secret in the North, uniquely in the UK – is driving suspicions of favouritism. He also mentioned the basic fact that "Northern Ireland is a very small place".

McQuillan's comments made headlines in Belfast because after leaving the police in 2003 he ran the high-profile Assets Recovery Agency, before joining the panel that sets Stormont's salaries and expenses. He has now said he will take no further public appointments.


A deeper irony than McQuillan's own quangocrat status is that the agency refused to investigate public sector corruption throughout the five years of its existence. Its remit of taking civil action to recover the proceeds of organised crime could easily have been applied to any number of alleged public sector scandals. The agency did not lack courage or initiative – it took on loyalists and republicans without fear or favour. But it seems to have had a mental block on the concept of white collars being felt – a problem with law enforcement across the UK, as the British government has just conceded. Prime Minister Theresa May is set to announce a crackdown on white-collar crime this week.


The specific problem in Northern Ireland, identified by McQuillan as cronyism, should be more dispassionately described as nepotism. In his interview, the former deputy chief constable was at pains to distinguish this from sectarianism. He noted a “one of ours and one of yours” culture in public appointments – fair nepotism, if you like.

Nepotism is the great unmentionable in Northern Ireland’s armoury of fair employment and appointment rules. It seems too intrinsic and inevitable in such a “very small place”, and hence too hard to address. So we courageously assure ourselves that the other rules cover it.

In 2012, Sinn Féin former minister Conor Murphy was found guilty of religious bias by an employment tribunal after appointing a Catholic acquaintance to chair the board of Northern Ireland Water, ahead of four Protestants.

Murphy did not help himself by claiming he was unaware of the appointee’s religion – nobody in the North is unaware of anyone’s religion.

However, I believe Murphy was right to complain of being branded sectarian. His fault was nepotism. It just so happened that as a Catholic person from an overwhelmingly Catholic area, any acquaintance of Murphy’s was most unlikely to be Protestant. This is the square peg the tribunal had to bang into a round hole.

Nepotism is traditionally regarded as a difficult issue to quantify but a breakthrough was made three years ago by the Italian economist Prof Roberto Perotti.

Boiling the question down to first principles, he surveyed the incidence of matching surnames in Italian university departments and uncovered so much duplication it caused a nationwide scandal.

Toxic perceptions

The Perotti score is more an indication of a problem than a measure as it does not capture friends and acquaintances. But it would still be worth running on public sector organisations in Northern Ireland, if only to disprove toxic perceptions. Local government is widely considered a family business and policing certainly used to be.

Nor should private enterprise escape attention. Manufacturing still has a notorious father-to-son culture, which matters when so much public money is pumped into firms to ensure fairer access to jobs and training.

McQuillan’s concern was reserved for the more rarefied world of boards and agencies. A Perotti method matching everyone’s previous jobs should give an interesting result – I would guess Northern Ireland’s core quangocracy at well under 200 people. We could use this information as a serious starting point to ask how much nepotism matters and how firmly we are prepared to act against it. Offsetting the power of personal relationships in a small place would require quite drastic measures – quotas for underrepresented groups, for example, or time limits on individual service. We may also have to accept that the pool of willing applicants is as small as Northern Ireland itself.

In a case before Belfast High Court, 11 people – many with extensive backgrounds serving on public bodies – face lengthy disqualification as company directors because they sat on the board of a tourism quango that collapsed in 2007, amid findings of irregular accounting. Their positions on this board were unpaid and they believe they are being made scapegoats for failings by civil servants.

How many of us would rush to take their place?