Margaret Ritchie versus the UDA, continued

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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.

6 Comments

  1. yourcousin said,

    October 20, 2007 at 12:25 pm

    On best Minister on the executive I would have to lean towards Gildernew. So far she’s handled foot and mouth, blue tongue, arson attacks and the realities that government money has to come from somewhere other than just the taxpayer (even if the majority of the ones paying are English).

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    October 20, 2007 at 2:22 pm

    That’s a good point, and Michelle has been more impressive than I expected. The rest haven’t really made their mark though.

  3. yourcousin said,

    October 20, 2007 at 3:07 pm

    Gildernew may be the only shinner to come out of the CTI debacle with an improved score from the pundits simply becaused she showed some back bone. While I admire PSF’s electoral discipline it needs to let the MLA’s take some initiative or they risk being viewed as a cult that can only trot out lines and responses that have been preapproved. Now even doing that is okay on certain things such as general party policy, but the fact that they expected Richie to back down and were unable to formulate a response on the fly is definitely going to come back and haunt them.

    Murphy and Ruane haven’t had a good start, but can improve. Ruane is in a minefield but she needs to drop the airs of “striving for equality” and get down to the nitty gritty. Murphy needs to do the same and they still can, but the Beeb and others want to focus on how he wants memos addressed instead of substantive issues.

    What will be interesting is to see how all of the Ministers will be able to wed trying to run a devolved administration and still placate their individual bases. So far the DUP and UUP have used this to try to axe the ILA, but we’ll see how the rest go. Add onto this that PSF still want to play like their left wing into the agenda and you have one hell of a mix.

  4. yourcousin said,

    October 20, 2007 at 3:08 pm

    Sorry, should have read,

    “PSF still want to play like they’re left wing”

    My bad.

  5. splinteredsunrise said,

    October 20, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    Murphy studied under Lord Bew, which fills me with a lot of confidence…

    There’s a cultural thing there with PSF, going back to they days when they didn’t have to do anything except justify whatever the military wing was at. I notice this even with the wunderkind O’Dowd, that he has serious trouble answering a question that Gerry hasn’t answered first.

  6. October 21, 2007 at 1:51 am

    […] splinteredsunrise placed an observative post today on Margaret Ritchie versus the UDA, continued.Here’s a quick excerpt: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 … […]


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