Transparency and accountability is needed to restore trust in government in Northern Ireland

David McBurney says: "With so many party political red lines, it's likely to be some time before we have Stormont back, above. But before we welcome our erstwhile political representatives back, citizens might want to draw some red lines of their own around issues of transparency and accountability"
David McBurney says: "With so many party political red lines, it's likely to be some time before we have Stormont back, above. But before we welcome our erstwhile political representatives back, citizens might want to draw some red lines of their own around issues of transparency and accountability"

Democracy in Northern Ireland is broken.

And it’s not just because we don’t have a functioning executive and assembly.

David McBurney, co-ordinator NI Open Government Network

David McBurney, co-ordinator NI Open Government Network

The problems run much deeper than that.

Our political system and the government machine is closed, unresponsive and unaccountable.

The ongoing RHI inquiry has revealed some of its flaws.

The inquiry proceedings heard evidence suggesting exceptional levels of incompetence and cronyism that could bring down a government, if we still had a government.

Most significantly, we have heard from the head of the civil service, David Sterling, that there was a practice within Stormont departments to ensure that “embarrassing or controversial material” was not placed on the formal record.

And there was a practice of deliberately not minuting ministerial meetings because the two main parties were sensitive to criticism, and it was ‘safer’ not to have a record that might be released in response to Freedom of Information requests.

Of course, RHI is just the latest in a series of high profile scandals that have undermined people’s confidence and trust in politics

Whilst lack of transparency and accountability is a major problem, secret lobbying is an issue of public concern.

It goes to the heart of why people are disillusioned with politics and why there is a lack of trust in government.

Citizens are kept in the dark about who is meeting with government ministers and potentially influencing government decisions.

The public are often unaware of the existence of government research that could improve their knowledge and help them make more informed choices about issues that affect their lives.

We need record-keeping for good governance.

Every public sector policy maker, auditor, court official and fraud investigator knows the importance of being able to find, use and trust official records as evidence of policies and actions.

Despite all the concerns about the influence of ‘dark money’ on democracy, we still don’t have retrospective transparency on donations to Northern Ireland political parties.

With RHI, none of the main protagonists had what we might call ‘skin in the game’.

Ministers, special advisers and government officials seemed not to expect to be held to account for their actions, or inaction.

And, despite being the minister who set up the scheme, Mrs Foster told the inquiry that she felt no personal responsibility for what happened on her watch.

With more evidence to come this month, it makes you wonder what else was going on.

Could this kind of thing happen again?

Maybe it already has.

Some people are yearning for the good old days when we had a functioning government, but the secretary of state is poised to cut MLA pay and introduce legislation to allow civil servants to take ministerial decisions.

With so many party political red lines, it’s likely to be some time before we have devolved government again.

But before we welcome our erstwhile political representatives back, citizens might want to draw some red lines of their own around issues of transparency and accountability.

• David McBurney is co-ordinator of NI Open Government Network.

The NI Open Government Network Conference, ‘Transparency for Accountability’ took place at the Riddel Hall, Belfast, today