And the controversy over Margaret Ritchie’s action against the UDA rumbles on. Thanks to the Telegraph, we now have sight of the two legal opinions put before the minister prior to her statement. Senior Crown Counsel Bernard McCloskey writes that “If the minister were to make a funding withdrawal decision at this stage, this would be vulnerable to successful legal challenge.” On the other hand, the external advice from Brett Lockhart QC argues that “Although I accept that there is a real prospect of challenge… I am of the view that a decision taken on the basis of current developments can still be robustly defended.” You pays your money and you takes your choice, I suppose.
A couple of points are worth making about this. One is, as pointed out on Slugger, that the terms of reference for both opinions expressly excluded any consideration of Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. There is a reasonable possibility that under Section 75 the original contract entered into by Peter Hain may have been illegal, which wouldn’t be the first time an executive decision of Hain’s fell foul of the law.
Another point is that the vulnerability to legal challenge is based on the cornflake-box argument that, while the UDA may be in flagrant breach of the terms of the Conflict Transformation Initiative, no contractual breach has been demonstrated on the part of Farset Community Enterprises, which is administering the CTI. Well, we are dealing with fine distinctions here. It is true that Farset is not just the UDA with a grant – it’s a community development organisation of which the CTI is only a subdivision. But, given that the CTI employs Frankie Gallagher and Billy McQuiston, a defence of “nothing to do with the UDA, honest guv” would be pretty specious. (Of course that might still wash in the Belfast courts, which have a record of shocking leniency towards the UDA.) Besides, if the CTI was totally separate from the UDA, it wouldn’t exist in the first place.
Now, we turn to the ramifications in the Executive. It is striking that the DUP-PSF bloc on the Executive has been getting stuck into Margaret on procedural grounds, most notably for announcing her decision without getting the prior backing of the Executive, and all these rumblings about minutes and so on (I direct readers to the Beeb’s invaluable Mark Devenport) flow from that. But no minister has actually come out and defended the UDA, and I think it’s obvious that, whatever political motivations are driving the infighting at Stormont, ministers are very much aware that Margaret’s decision has been extremely popular with the punters. After all, our finance minister keeps telling us that resources are tight, which puts into perspective expensive community programmes that don’t seem to achieve much beyond providing salaries to UDA men, without any detectable impact on the UDA’s criminal activity.
So much of the sniping gets aimed at Margaret herself, and the comments from Robinson, Dodds and McGuinness show a barely concealed undercurrent of sexism – what is this little woman doing getting mixed up in serious politics? Actually, and I say this as someone with little affinity for the SDLP, to date Margaret has arguably been the best minister at Stormont. Not a great feat, but she wins points for being the only minister so far to take an unpopular decision and stick by it.
Consider this: On yesterday’s Nolan show, culture minister Edwin Poots (why does that always have me smiling?) was asked why it was a breach of discipline for Margaret to defund the UDA without prior approval from the Executive, when his statement ruling out the Acht Gaeilge had not had prior Executive approval either. “Ah,” said Pootsie, “but that wasn’t a final decision.” Well, that’s all right then. Likewise, Arlene Foster hasn’t made a final decision on the Causeway visitors’ centre. Conor Murphy has water charges under review, and is likely to keep them under review for as long as humanly possible. Caitríona Ruane has post-primary selection under review. And so on.
In view of all this, isn’t the Stormont “Executive” really a misnomer? Shouldn’t it really be called something like the Procrastination Committee?
Rud eile: Connoisseurs of Provo bluster may enjoy the spectacle of über-Grizzlyite Chris Gaskin talking out of his arse.