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Reform, not revolutionary rhetoric, is what NIO needs

(Newton Emerson, Irish News)

Pat Doherty has expanded considerably upon Sinn Féin's promise to "put manners on the entire civil service". Quoting from a statement by former IRA hunger striker Laurence McKeown, the West Tyrone MP said: "It has been repeatedly identified in post-insurrectionary phases of struggle around the world that the civil service apparatus of the former regime is the greatest block to bringing about radical and progressive change under a new system of government.

"It's easy to spot an armoured jeep pass through our estates or identify the uniformed figure, but less so the hand of oppression in the pinstriped suit."

Two things are immediately striking about Mr Doherty's statement. The first is its ludicrous schoolboy agitprop language. The second is that he is completely mistaken. It has been repeatedly identified in "post-insurrectionary phases of struggle around the world" that the best thing any new government can do is leave the civil service structure alone. The most obvious example is one that really should not have escaped Mr Doherty's attention. Ireland left its civil servants almost totally untouched after independence. India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, half the Caribbean and pretty much every other successful former British possession also actively retained their entire administrative class, including any willing expatriates, through at least the early years of self-rule.

So what is Mr Doherty's real objection? There is no question that the NIO is unwieldy and overstaffed but Sinn Féin is not proposing public sector cutbacks or an administrative efficiency drive. In fact, Sinn Féin wants more programmes and more spending in every field of government activity, which can only mean more complexity and more oppressors in pin-striped suits. Rather than reducing the artificially-inflated number of Stormont departments, which would mean reducing the number of Sinn Féin ministers, the party also wants an extra ministry for policing and justice.

If the NIO is going to grow while the "apparatus of the former regime" shrinks then it seems that what Mr Doherty is actually proposing is a good old-fashioned purge. Bureaucrats will become the new securocrats as the Shinners seek out those with unsound political views or suspicious golf-club membership.

But how is a political party supposed to enact this dubious policy? Civil servants in Northern Ireland are hired, fired and promoted under some of the strictest equality laws in the world. Should those laws be disregarded? If so, how?

Thanks to equality legislation, Catholics are now fully represented at all but the most senior levels of the civil service and it will only be a few more years before this filters through to the top of the system. Are these people also, as Martin McGuinness might say, "the wrong sort of Catholics"?

There is no way to act on such suspicions without engaging in exactly the sort of discrimination and politicisation that Sinn Féin claims to oppose.

So the party's posture of putting manners on the entire civil service is complete nonsense – a sad attempt at a rabble-rousing distraction from how little its tactics have actually achieved.

The truth is that Northern Ireland is not entering a "post-insurrectionary phase" with "a new government". It is simply reacquiring a devolved regional assembly under slightly different rules. Sinn Féin will control two or three out of 10 ministries with a further half-share of the first and deputy first minister's office, leaving it in no position to rewrite the rules of public-sector employment.

Stormont's republican etiquette lesson will amount to nothing more than a bad-tempered episode of Yes, Minister, in which our Sinn Féin heroes blame all their frustrations on the fact that Sir Humphrey is a Prod.

The tragedy of this farce is that the NIO badly needs to be knocked down a peg or two and devolution provides plenty of scope to put manners on some very arrogant people. But these opportunities will arise during mundane hearings of the Public Accounts Committee or tedious negotiations at the Department of Finance and Personnel.

Sinn Féin simply doesn't know how to present such achievements to an electoral base fired up with hopeless expectations of tribal victory. Hence it resorts once again to the laughable language of "struggle". Everything is a struggle for the Shinners. They struggled against the British government, the British army, the security services, the PSNI and unionism. Soon they will be struggling against anyone in Dundonald House who can't write a memo in Irish. No doubt this struggle will be just as worthwhile as all the others.

February 23, 2007

This article appeared first in the February 22, 2007 edition of the Irish News.

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