RHI deserved scrutiny, but Sinn Fein is in no place to moralise

M�irt�n � Muilleoir's evidence sounded so relentlessly sanctimonious that maybe he was rather rattled by having to appear as a witness, or perhaps he  genuinely was as sure of his own and his party's moral goodness as he sounded
M�irt�n � Muilleoir's evidence sounded so relentlessly sanctimonious that maybe he was rather rattled by having to appear as a witness, or perhaps he genuinely was as sure of his own and his party's moral goodness as he sounded
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Recently in Belfast I bumped into someone who is well informed as to what is happening in republican circles.

Was Stormont coming back, I asked, as I often do of people who have access to different circles.

Well he said, February’s near deal with the DUP was a low bar for Sinn Fein. They would probably demand more, particularly if the Tory-DUP agreement fell.

None of what he said was surprising. Indeed, it was obvious.

It is worth reflecting on how the republican movement, unlike anyone else in the political process, feels it can make such demands.

This week the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry hearings came to an end.

This newspaper, despite being one of the UK’s smaller regional daily newspapers, has been the place to read about RHI. Day after day, Sam McBride has filed thousands of words on the hearings.

It was clear from the beginning that inquiry would be uncomfortable for the DUP. Some people remarked upon the fact that the News Letter, a strongly unionist newspaper, has covered the scandal so closely but few people now question the significance of the story.

On Wednesday, the only member of Sinn Fein to appear before the inquiry, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, did so. For three and a half hours the former finance minister gave testimony as to Sinn Fein’s approach to governance and RHI. I was sitting in the press gallery, as I was when other key witnesses such as Jonathan Bell and Arlene Foster testified.

Mr Ó Muilleoir’s evidence sounded so relentlessly sanctimonious that I wondered if actually he was rather rattled by having to appear as a witness, or if he genuinely was as sure of his own and his party’s moral goodness as he sounded.

After outlining the punctilious, by-the-book way Sinn Fein appoints its Spads, and after even at points spelling out how this rectitude (of course) contrasted with the DUP omissions, he without apparent embarrassment explained how they kept on a Sinn Fein advisor, who could no longer serve as a Spad (due to a law the assembly passed to prevent the employment of Spads with serious convictions). This advisor stayed on at Stormont so that he in fact sat above the Spads.

The said law had been sponsored on by Jim Allister MLA, inspired by Ann Travers, after Mary McArdle who was convicted in connection with the murder of Ann’s sister Mary, was appointed a Spad.

Mr Ó Muilleoir described the Spad law that his party tried to circumvent via a ‘Super Spad’ was an “attack on the peace process”.

He breezily dismissed the repeated evidence that Sinn Fein battled in early 2016 to keep the RHI scheme kept open. During his testimony an email, which like others was shown on a screen to the chamber, was from Michelle O’Neill referring to people being “left high and dry”. Sinn Fein did all this out of concern for scheme users, he said.

SF brought down Stormont because, perhaps above all their other grievances, of RHI. Schools and hospitals remain rudderless.

The party has preached about RHI ever since, and yet it was lobbying hard for it to be kept open.

On Wednesday, Mr Ó Muilleoir, even when self critical, was so with apparent self regard. “I make no apologies,” he said at point, “I make no excuses for myself.”

He brushed off the role of Ted Howell, the senior republican, whose name appears in e-mails in late 2016. Mr Howell’s emergence was the fault of the DUP, because he had been brought in to deal with the political crisis they created.

Mr Ó Muilleoir did not appear to miss a beat when questioned by the inquiry about the line where he asked Mr Howell in an email: “Would you be content if I were to sign off on the business plan on Wednesday afternoon?”

It was a request about timing, not a request for permission.

Mr Ó Muilleoir also explained that his baffling initial hesitancy to call a public inquiry was, in part, because the family of the murdered solicitor Pat Finucane opposed the 2005 Inquiries Act. This was one of a couple of points on Wednesday when Sir Patrick Coghlin got irritable with Mr Ó Muilleoir’s evidence.

But the latter only endured an afternoon of scrutiny.

One thing that has emerged from the RHI inquiry is that devolved government needs greater scrutiny.

There has been little scrutiny of the suggestion in the 2015 paramilitary report that the IRA army council exerts influence on Sinn Fein.

There was no scrutiny of the IRA spying at Stormont or break-in at Castlereagh that led to direct rule in 2002 (a move Dublin opposed). All politicians were punished, not just republican ones.

There was no proper scrutiny of the later Northern Bank heist, the murders of Robert McCartney, of Paul Quinn or Kevin McGuigan.

London could have examined all those controversies and others, such as the Colombia IRA-FARC episode in 2001-02, given the global climate towards terrorism after 911.

It never did.

The DUP could have toppled Stormont with good cause after the 2015 report but never did, or after the On The Runs secret scheme.

Many people in Northern Ireland, mostly unionist but also people across the spectrum who would eschew that term, are getting increasingly angry at the sense that Sinn Fein get special dispensation.

The law was changed to give it allowances at Westminster while it continued to boycott it.

Martin McGuinness told Saville’s Bloody Sunday inquiry he was constrained in what he could say by “a republican code of honour”.

Latterly the political wing of the IRA, which killed far more people than any other group, has made demands on legacy before Stormont can return, seemingly unafraid of the proposed legacy structures. In this paper last week the ex assistant chief constable and Assets Recovery Agency head Alan McQuillan warned of pressure “not least from the two governments” not to pursue those whose arrest might “destabilise the peace process”.

Remember that as elderly soldiers face trial for single shootings in the Troubles, no leaders of the IRA who orchestrated decades of violence faced charges akin to directing terrorism.

Does it ever occur to London that allegations of illegal or undemocratic behaviour might be as deserving of public scrutiny as RHI?

You might expect a Tory government propped up unionists, an Alliance Party that holds the balance of power, a Fine Gael government, and indeed that wing of the SDLP that hated the IRA, to agree on this.

But there is no such consensus. There is no demand from any of the above for reform of republican practice before Stormont returns.

Instead, Sinn Fein will “raise the bar” before Stormont can return.

If the past is anything to go by, everyone will probably jump to it.

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