Monday 19 August 2019

'Cash-for-ash' row is a chance for southerners to be a little bit smug

Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
John Downing

John Downing

The curious thing is that the same stereotype traditionally existed in French society, just as it did here in the Republic of Ireland. I mean the notion that Protestants are more honest, direct and upright in the conduct of their professional lives, than their Catholic neighbours.

That theory has it that Catholics tended to leave their religion at the church gate. They felt you would not be discussing your business in the confessional.

It was a strong, if more often unspoken, factor in the presidential election, in still culturally Catholic France, way back in 1995. Lionel Jospin, a Protestant, was unlucky not to beat Jacques Chirac, from a party which was for a long time contentedly allied with Fianna Fáil.

News of a bitter row over a hopelessly over-funded green energy scheme in Northern Ireland, which has stung the British taxpayer for up to £400m (€478m), challenges the stereotype about Protestant rectitude versus Catholic ducking and diving.

The scheme, which was to promote the use of wood-fuelled energy in the North, was found to have serious flaws in half of installations inspected by the North's Public Accounts Committee.

The row goes to the heart of the Belfast power-sharing administration and the office of First Minister Arlene Foster. There are questions about her role during her previous job as minister responsible for the energy sector when the scheme was set up in 2012.

For some observers of the North's difficult politics, this most venal of scandals is the extraordinary return to normal politics. A manifestation of some banal work-a-day political doings in the hitherto strife-dominated North.

Before we go any further let's stress that there are moral questions in play, irrespective of what church, or none, a person may or may not attend. Equally, there are serious implications for the stability of the North's fragile institutions with potential fall-out for the whole island.

The gravity of it all is underlined by Stormont's deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, yesterday calling upon Ms Foster to "stand aside" as First Minister while this so-called 'cash-for-ash' scandal is fully investigated. There is precedent as her predecessor, Peter Robinson, stood aside for a time in 2010 amid other controversy.

Mr McGuinness said he was concerned the "credibility of the political institutions was being undermined". But Mrs Foster replied that she would not be stepping aside and "does not take her instructions from Sinn Féin". Let's recall that they are trying to collaborate on the running of a coalition facing many problems.

But anecdotally, one detects other reactions in the southern jurisdiction, which raise issues of culture and history. It begs a specific question: does this scandal provide an opportunity for southerners to feel a little better about themselves?

One of the claims made by a whistleblower was that a farmer in the North was aiming to collect about £1m (€1.2m) over 20 years for heating an empty shed. In another recounting the shed door was open belching precious heat into the sky.

That suggests this scandal could fit either side of the Border. In fact many people are waiting for a link with the Republic.

Why be partitionist about controversy which has lessons for all communities all across this island and beyond? We have few if any reason to feel smug.

Irish Independent

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