Faith Matters

Norman Hamilton: RHI revealed the ethical poverty at the heart of Stormont. It can't allowed to return

Amid the fanfare around the return of Stormont, it is a matter of great concern that there is almost no public discussion about what constitutes 'good' or 'ethical' government, says Dr Norman Hamilton

The latest Stormont Executive, photographed on Monday January 13, will need more than smiling faces to persuade the public that it doesn't have the ethical poverty of its previous incarnation. Picture by PressEye/PA Wire

AMONGST the many things that the evidence to the RHI Inquiry clearly showed was that the former Executive operated with profound ethical poverty at its very centre.

That alone made the almost immediate requests from the new Executive, formed less than two weeks ago, to the UK government for more cash almost shameless.

As it did so, no apology was offered to the government, let alone to the taxpayer or electorate, for the 'fill your boots, the UK treasury will pick up the bill' attitude revealed in the evidence heard by the RHI Inquiry.

The new Executive might be trying to downplay or gloss over RHI, but the governments had already taken notice of the culture it exposed. The New Decade, New Approach document is not silent on the shambles.

It states that the UK government will consider "implications for the use of public money in Northern Ireland" following publication of the RHI Inquiry Report.

Every three months there will be a review of how the cash that the government is providing under the agreement is being spent.

And every year there will be an assessment of the money coming to the Executive alongside their spending proposals.

It looks as if the Executive's homework will be closely marked.

The government's oversight imposes a strong ethical framework, even if it is not expressed in those terms.

In more general terms, it has to be a matter of great concern that there is almost no public discussion about what constitutes 'good' government.

Everything seems reduced to political deals, power struggles and protection of the party.

The principles of ethical conduct rarely seem to matter very much.

For example, the petition of concern has been used on a number of occasions to prevent action being taken against an MLA for indulging in what most people would describe as unacceptable behaviour.

Each time it was used, it involved many members of the Assembly.

That is a sad commentary on the balance that its members struck between loyalty to the party and loyalty to doing what is right.

The New Decade, New Approach document promises to reform how and when the petition can be used, so that it will only operate in clear and well defined situations.

That reform will be very welcome.

Public ethics does not only apply to the behaviour of political leaders.

It also applies to the making of public policy. This makes ethics very important to ministers, the Executive itself, the Assembly, civil servants and those who serve on public bodies of all kinds - and, of course, to the electorate itself.

Yet even here there are from time to time shadowy ethics - and that is putting it mildly.

I was told by a very senior politician that a minister would usually make sure that a public consultation on a policy issue was carried out in such a way that it would back up the decision he or she wanted.

That was evident in the recent consultation on abortion reform, where it was really quite difficult to express a dissenting view on a particular question.

It will be a public test of the government's ethics and integrity to see in due course how the decisions that are taken actually line up with the responses they received.

Yet many ethical issues in government, as elsewhere, are very difficult to decide, and even hindsight may not make it clear if a good decision was made.

Arguably, the most difficult ethical decisions will need to be made by Robin Swann, the new health minister.

There will not be enough money to do all that could, or should, be done to improve health care.

For example, on what basis can a good decision be made to pay for more of the expensive heart transplants which will save the lives of those receiving them, against the need to provide better care for people in their own homes, which becomes expensive simply because of the very large number of people involved?

Or how can a hospital's Accident and Emergency department be protected so that it only caters for those in genuine emergency and is not a fall-back service for those who should, but do not wish to, wait for an appointment with a GP?

Making decisions such as these is extremely difficult. Many factors are involved: finance; the availability of the right people in the right places at the right times with the right equipment; public expectation and the pressure that exerts; political convictions; and ethical considerations.

Clearly, there is no clinical formula or ethical framework that can properly meet the need to help the greatest number of people alongside providing properly for the needs of those in deep distress or acute pain.

Health is only one department of government. Every other department faces acute dilemmas, even if they are not necessarily those of immediate life and death.

The ministers in the new Executive need our active support. And they will deserve it if they obviously seek the common good and do not merely serve tribal or sectarian interests.

They will not always make good judgments, though none of the rest of us do either.

But what they must establish and explain is the ethical basis for the decisions they take, and not merely hide behind financial constraints or political mantras dressed up as red lines.

There is a particular need for the new faces in the Executive to actively distance themselves from the disgraceful antics of the past. That will require great moral courage and perseverance.

They seem to be up for that challenge, but those of us in civic society need to help them meet it.

Strong, ethical and 'good' government will not happen unless it is actually wanted, expected and delivered.

:: Rev Dr Norman Hamilton is a former Presbyterian moderator.

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