Alex Kane: Is dysfunction actually Stormont’s factory setting?

Evidence heard in the Covid Inquiry has been hugely damaging for the Executive

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is an Irish News columnist and political commentator and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride beside a picture of parliament buildings, stormont
Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride labelled Stormont Executive ministers “dysfunctional b*****ds” and spoke of an “enemy within” as the Covid crisis worsened (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

I got quite excited when the phrase ‘dysfunctional b*****ds’ flashed across my timeline on Tuesday. So excited, in fact, that I didn’t bother reading the immediate context.

I’m a fan of early 1970s punk and dared to dream that it might be a reference to a band that had somehow managed to slip through my net. And since I’m also a fan of Quentin Tarantino, I hoped that it might be some sort of sequel to his wonderful film Inglourious Basterds.

So, you can imagine my disappointment on discovering it was Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer talking about the Executive during the Covid crisis.

Handout photo issued by Press Eye of Health Minister Robin Swann (left) and Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride during a Covid-19 update press conference in Parliament buildings, Stormont, Belfast. Issue date: Wednesday April 14, 2021. PA Photo. See PA story ULSTER Coronavirus. Photo credit should read: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA Wire ..NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used in for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder..
Professor Sir Michael McBride made the comments about the Executive in a message to Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann in September 2020

I’m not sure that I’m with him on the b-word (although I’m pretty sure I have used an even ruder word about them in my personal diary); but yep, he’s bang on the money about the dysfunction. A word that could have been used about every single Executive since the first one was appointed in late 1999.

In fairness to them, I don’t think they sit around a big table and plan a strategy for dysfunction. That said, since they don’t actually seem to sit around the big table and plan an agreed strategy for anything else, they would certainly have the time to drift into accidental dysfunction.

Oh! Now there’s a good name for our Executives: the accidental dysfunctionals. A bizarre mix of chaos, farce, phone-wiping, minutes-losing, custard-pie-throwing hilarity.

The Thick of It meets the Thick in It – with all sorts of Tuckers hanging around the place. What could go wrong?

We’ll never know, of course, because, as we’re now discovering, the evidence seems to have been mislaid or trundled into the great delete bin in the sky.

At some point during the next few days, I’m expecting an Executive-appointed spokesperson equivalent of Fawlty Towers’ Manuel to take the stand and smile witlessly as he replies to every question: “I know nothing.”

The UK Covid-19 Inquiry logo
The UK Covid-19 Inquiry is currently holding hearings in Belfast (Liam McBurney/Liam McBurney/PA Wire)

There’s still another couple of weeks of the Covid inquiry’s visit to Belfast. The first couple of days have been hugely damaging for the Executive at the time and will, I suspect, be similarly damaging for the present Executive. Let’s face it, if they found it so difficult to pull together at a time when not only Northern Ireland, but the entire world, was facing an extraordinary crisis, then why would anyone expect them to pull together for the everyday stuff of politics? Like collectively agreeing a budget, or even outlining a fairly basic programme for government.

Because of its unique challenges, no-one possessed a stockpile of this-is-what-you-do-in-a-pandemic manuals. Governments around the world had to act quickly, often in the dark and often forced to make it up as they went along. Mistakes were bound to be made and those mistakes, along with the make-it-ups, were always going to fuel the conspiracy theorists who live for a good crisis – like a ‘deliberately released virus to pave the way for greater control by the old elites’.

Now there’s a good name for our Executives: the accidental dysfunctionals. A bizarre mix of chaos, farce, phone-swiping, minutes-losing, custard-pie-throwing hilarity

So, when minutes go missing and mobile phones and computers have been returned to ‘factory settings’, suspicions will be aroused. In my time based at the assembly, most minutes of meetings were circulated by one method or another. That makes it quite difficult to lose every copy. In previous jobs, when I have had to return a mobile phone or computer, I have made sure to keep copies of material for my own records. Just in case. Which is why I find it astonishing that some very senior political figures seem so sanguine about their phones and computers having been wiped clean. Do they even know if the wipers kept copies of certain documents?

But perhaps the most unsettling of what we have learned – so far – of how the Executive dealt with the crisis, is the ease with which a virus which didn’t distinguish between unionist, nationalist or other could still lead to us-and-them clashes. Or, as Sir David Sterling, former head of the civil service put it, “some politicians seemed keener to score points off each other”.

Sir David Sterling leaves the Clayton Hotel in Belfast after giving evidence at the UK Covid-19 inquiry.
Sir David Sterling leaves the Clayton Hotel in Belfast after giving evidence at the UK Covid-19 inquiry. Picture: Liam McBurney/PA Wire (Liam McBurney/Liam McBurney/PA Wire)

That was the case in 1999. It was the case during the pandemic. It is the case right now. Maybe we have to face the fact that the parties just don’t want to work together? Ever. On anything.

Maybe dysfunction is actually the factory setting.