Ben Lowry: Two crises – RHI and legacy issues – come together in a perfect storm

Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister Arlene Foster is pictured with Warmflow Engineering Co Ltd Managing Director Stuart Cousins during a visit to the company's premises.
Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister Arlene Foster is pictured with Warmflow Engineering Co Ltd Managing Director Stuart Cousins during a visit to the company's premises.

The word crisis is an over-worked one, but our front page today is justified in identifying two crises – RHI and legacy matters.

The two have been brewing separately for a while, but came together yesterday in a perfect storm as the RHI saga deepened and we found that two soldiers in their 60s will be dragged to Northern Ireland for killing an IRA man (see links at the bottom of this article).

Official IRA man Joe McCann who was killed in Belfast in 1972. Photo: Pacemaker, Belfast

Official IRA man Joe McCann who was killed in Belfast in 1972. Photo: Pacemaker, Belfast

Stormont is, at least temporarily, in chaos, even if the devolved institutions themselves are not at imminent risk of collapse.

The impact of one crisis – the vast scandal of RHI – is going to impact on the amount of energy and attention that can be allocated to resolving the other, the grotesquely one-sided (and worsening) nature of the legacy processes.

This is particularly so because the people who are most inclined and capable of fixing the latter, Stormont’s largest unionist party, the DUP, are barely able to think of anything other than RHI just now.

Whether RHI was corruption or incompetence, people who have followed this closely such as my reporting colleagues are better able to judge (see the multiple links to RHI stories here).

I would say two things:

First, we know how fast some children can be at spotting opportunities to profit or make money, perhaps earning coins to wash a car.

It seems staggering if adults, let alone experienced officials, were unable to see that a subsidy of 1.51p profit per kilowat burned would lead to an incentive to leave on heaters and rack up bills.

We can all now imagine how in those circumstances we could make such a profit by heating our own homes. Even in my flat heating bills could be multiplied by a factor of five or six by turning on all radiators full blast 24 hours and leaving windows open a bit (although anyone who did such a thing would know in their bones they were cheating even if it was legal).

The slow uptake of the RHI scheme in 2012 suggests that the scope for profit was not obvious to consumers and so such lack of foresight was just about plausible on the part of organisers.

But it does not explain why no-one thought to introduce the elementary guards against such abuse as existed in Great Britain (if indeed no-one did suggest such limits, but was over-ruled by someone more senior).

But once the word got round from consumers that profits could be made, frenzied behaviour from would-be beneficiaries is no surprise, which brings me to my second thought:

Fifteen years ago I reported on a pyramid selling craze that erupted in places including north Down. I went to a meeting in Bangor attended by hundreds of people in near hysteria, handing over hundreds of pounds in cash to existing members of the scheme in a desperate bid to get on the ladder.

Within days the whole scheme had collapsed and the people on the bottom lost their money. But a week or two before that most people in the area had been unaware of the scheme.

It went from nothing to boom to bust very fast. Some early members made tens of thousands of pounds.

The RHI is not an exact parallel but both sagas illustrate how people can stampede towards profit.

Pyramid schemes are always fuelled by easy gain and then always collapse under the mathematical certainty of the numbers – each layer of members needs a much bigger layer underneath it and in a small number of steps you need the population of the whole world to sustain it.

RHI was not so mathematically certain to collapse but it was ruinously expensive, and will cost £1.2 billion+ for a population of 1.8 million people, with only 5,000 beneficiaries.

Imagine if there had been 50,000 beneficiaries (or 250,000, costing £60 billion, far more than the annual budget of Northern Ireland)?

So even if there was incompetence in the way the RHI scheme was established, once the rush in applications was noticed it should clearly have been closed immediately.

The needed comprehensive inquiry must find out exactly why that did not happen. Any possible link between late RHI applicants and anyone who might have been in a position to delay closure of the scheme ought to be carefully examined.

In the meantime, the crisis in legacy matters gets more and more apparent – and it is a crisis.

If left unchecked scores of elderly soldiers and policemen could face criminal trials for Troubles deaths, while only a handful of terrorists do, despite the fact that the security forces were responsible for 10% of the overall deaths – many of those clearly legitimate (such as the SAS killings of the IRA fanatics at Loughgall in 1987).

Already unionists have been caught badly off guard by the suggested mechanisms, which focus so overwhelmingly on the state.

It is with regret that I feel the need to write ‘unionists’ there, because I wish that the Alliance Party and moderate members of the SDLP and of the Labour or Greens or whatever parties had also foreseen the problem with a process that focuses disproportionately on the security forces – because almost all such people were passionately opposed to terrorism and accept that the state forces generally did a good job.

But unionists should certainly have seen the pitfalls in the legacy institutions.

It might not at first sight have seemed that what has happened was going to happen. For example, legacy inquests into deaths at the hands of the state sound reasonable (given that illegal state killing is never acceptable), as do open-ended ombudsman investigations into past police failures if they are accompanied by a Historical Investigations Unit that prosecutes ex terrorists.

But experienced voices should have been able to foresee that the latter might find it easier to go after state failures, because the state has records, than after terrorists who were so adept at covering their tracks.

Thus all the main legacy branches end up turning in against a state that prevented civil war.

That is where special advisors (Spads) are important. The RHI scandal has thrown a spotlight on Spads. These are influential people who advise Stormont ministers.

At their best they are smart and thoughtful and wise – more impressive than their minister and crucial to good governance.

At their worst, they are none of those things.

Every time a good Spad is lost, perhaps because a ministerial post has changed hands, the quality of devolution takes a hit.

If any Spad deliberately helped keep RHI alive, they are deservedly toast. But I hope fallout from RHI leaves the best of them intact.

These are the sort of people who are more likely to foresee problems such as profligate public expenditure or legacy pitfalls.

My own view is that on legacy matters we have suffered something akin to a moral collapse.

A swathe of moderate people who know how patiently the state saw off the IRA will not now defend the state’s role during the Troubles, except in conversations at home or among friends.

Perhaps they think it makes them seem too unionist, and thus look sectarian, to say such a thing or to use words such as terrorist.

It is republicans and their apologists who have put this focus on the past. It is they who have insisted on funding for scrutiny of the state.

They were foolish to do this because millions of people across the UK are now beginning to see what is happening, with announcements such as yesterday on the ex soldiers.

See how they react if intelligence operatives are prosecuted for their bravery in infiltrating murdering thugs such as the IRA’s security unit.

But Sinn Fein wanted this. Dublin is singing their tune for some reason.

We now need a massive public inquiry into the IRA based on the balance of probabilities – what it did, what its economic cost was, who its leaders were, why so many civilians died at the hands of its most fanatical operatives when the state knew who they were, and so on.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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