Assembly is merely a twig on the NIO branch

By Brian Feeney (for the Irish News)

You’ve all just had a glossy brochure stuffed through your letterbox. It’s entitled ‘Your Government - Making a Difference’.

Now let’s not get carried away here. The people featuring in the brochure - the newly appointed ministers - are not “your government” or anyone else’s for that matter.

They are an administration. They administer the bloc grant transferred from Westminster with a bit of cash from Dublin’s National Development Plan next year.

They can’t raise taxes, thank God. We all know they can’t even vary corporation tax, which they’ve been begging to do for months. They can’t join the euro. All they can do is fiddle around with the money they’re given.

Unlike the Scottish Parliament they can’t pass primary legislation that would have an impact on people’s lives here to make them measurably different from the lives people lead in England and Wales.

We haven’t even mentioned security and defence. Even if they manage to acquire control over policing next year as planned, they’ll never have a say in defence.

In short, it’s easier to list what they can do than to begin to think of what they can’t do.

The fact is that the whole grandiose, self-important assemblage of ministers, committees, committee chairs and vice-chairs and so on is merely a twig on the NIO branch that forms an organic part of the British government.

The executive and assembly control the Northern Ireland civil service but have no control over the NIO, which is the bailiwick of the British proconsul for the time being.

The NIO plays the role of what used to be known here as the imperial civil service.

All the permanent secretaries and deputy secretaries and under-secretaries in the assembly departments operate on a lower tier than the NIO permanent secretary and his underlings.

When they get their gongs after a zillion years of flunkeying, even their gongs are of a duller metal, their knighthoods of a lower order.

How will the local parties handle all this? Will they stand up to the NIO officials who will attempt to continue to run the north as they’ve always done? Who will control the spin and lies, that integral part of NIO skulduggery?

In its heyday, before the Cabinet Office interfered in the peace process and took it over in 1993, the NIO was spending #20 million a year on public relations.

The Northern Ireland Information Service - there’s an oxymoron for you - was delivering three packets of press releases a day to journalists, almost as many as Sinn Féin.

The NIO had 58 staff in London and Belfast churning out propaganda. They were spending #7 million a year compared to the Scottish Office’s #1.4 million.

It’s all wound down considerably now but how will our new boys and girls fit in?

All the parties have press officers. All the departments have press officers. The NIO has a legion of press officers, here and in London, and they have access to in the United States too and, the British government’s information website.

Who will call the shots?

You will notice on the Directgov website that the NIO ranks above the Northern Ireland Assembly and Northern Ireland government departments.

You will also notice that it is the NIO “which supports the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in taking forward government policy in Northern Ireland”.

It therefore goes without saying that on the big issues, the executive only administers government policy.

What is going to be interesting is the first meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council next month in Armagh.

It is important to nationalists as their symbolic riposte to the Stormont assembly.

Who will spin it? The NIO or the executive or both? Will there be a turf war? You bet. Who will spin it in the US?

Sinn Féin will certainly do its best on its website but will the party press officers be able to tell the department press officers to shut up?

Here’s the $64,000 question, however. Will the executive be able to tell the NIO spinners to shut up? Not likely.

Despite the minimal role of NIO ministers in the North/South Ministerial Council you can be sure that our beautifully maintained proconsul will squeeze himself in just as shamelessly as he squashed on to that sofa at Stormont.

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© 2007 Irish Republican News