Faith Matters

Rev Norman Hamilton: Accountability and integrity have been set aside in public life

Instead of a political nervous breakdown completely destroying faith in our politics, a return to the basic standards of public life would go a long way to rebuilding trust, argues the Rev Dr Norman Hamilton

Norman Hamilton

RHI Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin has already warned that some individuals and organisations are likely to face "significant criticism" in his final report

WHEN the former head of MI6 in London spoke recently of the UK having a "political nervous breakdown", and cast doubt on the capacity of leading politicians to actually lead, his words could surely also have been applied directly to our local scene here in Northern Ireland.

We are more than two-and-a-half years without effective government, political relationships are increasingly toxic, the community is polarised over Brexit and respect, not only for democratic process but also for elected representatives, is at a very low ebb.

Bleakness fills the air in health, education, agriculture and business, even though so many people are showing great resilience in the face of great challenges.

And there is much more to come as the Halloween Brexit date approaches under a new prime minister, and the publication of the Renewable Heat Incentive report draws nearer.

Instead of a political nervous breakdown completely destroying faith in our politics, a return to the basic standards of public life would go a long way to rebuilding trust in politicians and politics, and start the healing process.

It seems to have been widely forgotten that everyone who contributes to public life is formally required to sign up to seven core values which were first set out by Lord Nolan back in 1995.

As a practising Christian, I am acutely aware that an analysis of my own life would show clearly that, whatever my aspirations, my own life would not stand up well to detailed scrutiny against these values

They apply to civil servants, elected representatives at every level, those who serve on public bodies of any kind (as I have), police officers and those working in the judicial system.

The seven principles are:

(1) Selflessness

(2) Integrity

(3) Objectivity

(4) Accountability

(5) Openness

(6) Honesty

(7) Leadership (which includes personal behaviour)

As a practising Christian, I am acutely aware that an analysis of my own life would show clearly that, whatever my aspirations, my own life would not stand up well to detailed scrutiny against these values. And probably no-one else's would either.

None of us is without failing or fault. However, what Lord Nolan was setting out in the seven principles was a set of 'norms' which everyone in public life should seek to uphold, even in the midst of failings and weaknesses.

Yet what appears to have happened is that these norms have been, and continue to be, set aside in favour of others that are much less praiseworthy... such as evasiveness instead of accountability; self interest instead of selflessness; secrecy and spin instead of openness; party interest instead of objectivity.

Perhaps the most concerning of all is in the issue of integrity. Dwight D. Eisenhower, a five-star army general during the Second World War and US President from 1953 to 1961, memorably declared: "The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible."

Few would dare to disagree, and it is defined further in the Nolan principles in these words: "Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work.

"They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends.

"They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships."

When this comes under serious question - as it has - the climate of public life changes as suspicion takes over from trust, with apathy and even hostility replacing support.

If the RHI report raises major questions about integrity, or serious shortcomings in upholding some of the other Nolan principles are identified, an apology or an excuse or a reliance on spin cannot be a satisfactory response

When the RHI report is published later this year, there will be intense scrutiny of what it says about those who gave evidence to the enquiry.

The chair of the inquiry, Sir Patrick Coghlin, has already warned that some individuals and organisations are likely to face "significant criticism" in his final report.

That in itself may not be a great surprise, given some of the quite extraordinary evidence that was heard in public and widely reported.

However, if the report raises major questions about integrity, or serious shortcomings in upholding some of the other Nolan principles are identified, an apology or an excuse or a reliance on spin cannot be a satisfactory response.

Accountability is one of the key Nolan principles, and that may well mean that an individual should stand down voluntarily from a position of trust or responsibility.

This is not about revenge being sought or the humiliation of any individual, but simply the action needed to uphold the standards that have been agreed, signed up to by our leaders and public servants, and expected by the wider electorate.

No amount of spin should be allowed to cover up incompetence, shoddy behaviour or wrongdoing.

Even if these are identified (and they may not), it would also be totally unacceptable for expressions of anger to go over the top, with language and attitudes that devalue and diminish those who are the subject of that 'significant criticism'.

We live in a society that seems unconcerned that aggression and even vulgarity have become so embedded in our public debates.

This too must increasingly be seen as unacceptable, and ought itself to be subject to 'significant criticism'.

Our political nervous breakdown is not to be matched by a breakdown of civility, or the absence of forgiveness.

The way we handle the RHI report will be as great a commentary on the values of our community and society, as the report itself will be on the scandal that led to the enquiry being set up in the first place.

Let him - or her - who is without sin, cast the first stone when it is published.

There will need to be proper and full accountability and clear consequences, but no stoning to death of reputations.

The Rev Dr Norman Hamilton is a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and has served on a number of public bodies, including the Community Relations Council.

Rev Norman Hamilton

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