Mark Carruthers and guests review the week's political events from Stormont and Westminster and follow the highs and lows of the political week.
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As the fallout continues
from dramatic claims about political
transparency from Northern Ireland's
most senior civil servant.
We ask: have our politicians been
keeping us in the dark?
Tonight on The View:
What price transparency?
I'll be asking MLAs past and present
if there really was a culture
of secrecy at Stormont.
Gareth Gordon has been assessing
the odds of a return
to a devolved Assembly.
I don't know. I wouldn't want to be
the bookmaker to take the odds on
that at the moment, now.
cert. You could put your house on.
We'll hear from Shane Harrison,
who's been running his eye over
the form guide in Washington ahead
of St Patrick's Day.
And just to prove there's
nothing new in politics,
we unearthed one of the classics.
So what is your problem?
minutes aren't written yet.
So, what should I do?
And finally, with the inside track
on all of the above,
columnists Alex Kane
and Fionnuala O'Connor are in their
very own winners' enclosure.
Not keeping records of meetings
between Stormont Ministers,
their advisers and officials
was this week described by the Head
of the Civil Service as "safer".
The reaction to David Sterling's
comments disputes that.
So where does that leave
the reputation of Stormont,
in the shape of both the former
and the senior civil servants
who now run the place?
With me to reflect on Mr Sterling's
comments are two former Ministers -
the Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy
and the Independent Claire Sugden,
and the former Sinn Fein chair
of the Assembly's Finance Committee,
Thank you for joining us tonight.
Claire Sugden did David Sterling's
comments about an absence of
note-taking come as a surprise to
Yes because certainly the
department was always keen to be in
the room with me and take notes.
Some circumstances I nearly had
civil service on top of me. To be
honest, I felt that almost ruined
the dynamic in meetings I had. I
think again David needs to clarify
his comments because there's some
situations where it's maybe not
appropriate to have as many civil
service in the room as would want to
Why would that be the case in
For example, as Justice Minister I
was meeting with victims and they
were telling me personal stories. To
have ten people sitting behind me
I had a note taker at the least in
the room with me to give me cover or
something was said or I said outside
the room we had a record of that.
Was there an occasion when a senior
civil service said to you, minister,
it might be bet are for all sorts of
reasons not to put everything down
on-the-record because the last thing
you would want would be an FoI
request or inquiry application which
would then reveal something that you
might not want to be in the public
domain. Did that conversation ever
Not a senior civil service,
no, but a low grade civil service
into my ministry reminded me that
any comment I made in submission
papers or anything I said would be
subject to FoI. I don't think it was
to encourage any secrecy or lack of
transparency. If anything it
encouraged me to be more thoughtful
about what I put down in those
submission papers. We have to be
mindful around this, the debate on
the FoI when requests are asked for
they are very much asked about
specific pieces of information.
Policy a long development process. A
piece of paper can be taken out of
context in terms of the wider debate
around that. . Reflecting on it now.
Do you think there was ever a
circumstance when you as a minister,
in a meeting, that you knew was
being noted, held back from saying
something which you didn't want
subsequently to be on the public
record? No. I wouldn't have felt
that I held back in anyway. I didn't
really feel I needed to. I had
nothing to hide Serge as a minister.
I uphold that value of transparency.
No, certainly, I'm not perfect. I
rely on my civil servants to give me
information and my perspectives may
not have been correct. I wouldn't
have say everything floating around
in my head.
I was mindful about what I was
trying to do. That was trying to do
a good job and be as diligent as I
could be not to discourage
David Sterling said
that in his experience it was fairly
common across all departments that
notes would not necessarily be
taken. So that they were not
recoverable at a later stage. Was
that a surprise to you to hear?
was an interesting contribution. My
initial take on it was that David
was trying to create a distraction
to ensure the focus of the session,
in terms of his involvement with
RHI, that wassic taen away. But I
think I agree that he has to clarify
what he means. He said a culture
developed. Was it by ministerial
direction or was it the senior civil
servants acting in response to the
political situation? This is an
important point because the public
has to remember as well that the
performance of ministers doesn't
only reflect on the ministers and
their parties but the senior civil
servants and their future career
prospects. It may be the case that
civil servants took it upon
themselves to do this rather than
the politicians. We don't not know
at this stage.
What about Sinn
Fein's involvement. David Sterling
said it was common across all
departments, in the evidence he was
giving he said it was particularly
the case with the two main parties.
The DUP and Sinn Fein?
are aimed towards the two main
parties. I think it's important now
that he follows through on this. The
Information Commissioner is also
wanting to hear further
clarification from imhad. I don't
think it's good enough for David to
hide behind the fact there is an RHI
inquiry going on his comments have
wider ramifify cautions.s if
ministers need to be named he needs
to name them.
People were surprised
how upfront he was in the comments
that he gave. If there was a
criticism or a surprise expressed it
was at the fact he was quite so
Yesterday on the other hand
today there have been many questions
in regard to this. He hasn't come
He is in America at
Given the level of
public importance on this, I think
there is a duty on him to clarify
this as soon as possible.
He is due to appear before the RHI
inquiry again in due course. If you
were surprised, Mr Sterling made
comments be quite openly this time.
During the Finance Committee's Nama
inquiry in 2015, you were the chair
of the committee at that time, you
will recall no doubt that he
admitted civil servants, "need to be
more consistent in our approach toic
itting notes of meetings." He said
it all before?
He had said it before
at that time. At that time Nama in
the South were taking minutes of the
meetings with DFP, but DFP were not
taking minutes. Because there were
so many questions about the Nama
issues at that time it got lost in
the undergrowth. He made reference
to the fact that his minister at
that time, I think it was Arlene
Foster, had actually made the
proposal that further minutes should
be taken. He actually agreed with
that. I think there is still so many
questions around this, it just needs
to be clarified before we can point
the finger at anybody.
It opens a
whole can of worms. A lot of people
were very surprised at what David
Sterling had to say even though he
had suggested it, it was the case in
certain circumstances before, as
we've discussed, back in November
2015. You were a minister for some
time in the Executive before. Were
you a ware of civil servants not
noting minutes you were involved in
for fear of subsequent recovery?
my clear recollection is I neither
sought that records would not be
taken, nor did at any stage nicenor
civil servant or any civil servant
of any rank suggest to me it might
be a good idea that people stop
Was it ever pointed out to
you, as it was to Claire Sugden, you
needed to be mindful of the fact
anything you write on a paper could
be recoverable under an FoI request?
Of course. I think it's important to
distinguish between any discussion
that is are held within a meeting.
But discussions are discussions,
they are not decisions. I think when
we talk about minutes I think we
more properly describe them as
records of meetings because they
would normally reflect outcomes and
actual decisions which I think is
altogether different to having
just interesting, if you read the
civil servants guide "meeting notes
are intended to record accurately
any decisions taking or undertakings
made by the minister." Reagreed by
that "they may summarise the main
facts and arguments used during that
meeting" that's the critical point,
Yes. That would normally
have happened through submissions
which would have been written up and
brought to the minister for his or
her consideration. Mindful of the
earlier discussion, those sub
missions would reflect either the
minister's view or, in certain
contentious issues, an alternative
view, leaving it clear for a
minister to make the ultimate
decision. So there's nothing wrong
with that. I think the concerns that
we have, that I have, with the David
Sterling's remarks are that it
strikes, or it seems to query the
independence of the Northern Ireland
Civil Service and also the openness
and transparency of a local
administration. Of course we... The
Westminster conventions should be
the one that is are followed. That
is that whilst governments come and
go, whilst politicians are
transient, the civil servants are a
constant. They have to reflect, not
only the will of individual
ministers, or even government, but a
consistency across and an even
handedness. I think the suggestion
that David Sterling indicated
certainly there may have been some
type of control freakry at a senior
level within the Executive needs
one former senior civil servant told
this programme the practice was
widespread and very prevalent on the
part especially of the DUP. What do
you make of that?
I can only speak
for the Department of Justice, which
I will say is perhaps a
differenclure to the other
departments because it we was
devolved later than other
departments. The practices in
Whitehall were practiced there
better than in other departments. I
didn't interfere from the DUP or
Sinn Fein work in other departments.
It wouldn't be appropriate to do
that. When we came together was at
the Executive table there were notes
taken there. I think we need David
Sterling to clarify his comments
here because it's quite a sweeping
statement to make and I'm not sure
it's applicable to all meetings we
had. As Danny has explained, it is
absolutely important to take a
record. For your own cover, more
than anything else. I certainly
wouldn't want someone I met saying
toe m that I said something I
I do say Mark, I don't agree
with Daithi's earlier contribution
that suggested that David Sterling
was in some way starting another
fire in a different part of the room
to distract on any other issue
regarding RHI. I think David
Sterling is an experienced civil
servant. A senior civil servant. The
acting head of the Northern Ireland
Service, further clarification is
required, I would stay well short of
accusing him of trying to cause any
kind of real distraction.
It will be interesting to
It will be interesting to see what
comments or clarification he makes.
I am sure he will dispute the
suggestion you just said. He said it
was prevalent from the two main
parties, Sinn Fein has said that it
is not the case as far as it is
concerned, Mairtin O Muilleoir said
it was claptrap, so were you aware
of the DUP being involved in this?
Do you think the former civil
servant who suggested it was
prevalent on the part of the DUP has
My sense of the DUP during
my time in the Assembly is that they
were defensive about issues, they
didn't try for street processes with
the office of First Minister and
Deputy First Minister so it isn't a
surprise that they haven't clarified
their position, but there is a
suggestion that freedom of
information legislation is being
interfered with because they are
fundamental to political culture
here and transparency, so what this
flag is up for me is that the
Freedom of information legislation
needs to be strengthened.
Stirling pointed the finger at the
two largest parties. Short of
further clarification, there are
issues to be addressed and there
presumably is an opportunity for the
civil service to get its act
together in advance of Stormont
being resumed, however unlikely that
I think it is an issue we will
return to. We would have liked to
have been able to put these issues
to a representative of the DUP but
the party declined to take part in
this discussion. A spokesperson said
it is inappropriate that the DUP be
asked to comment on issues that are
subject to a live public inquiry.
Thanks for now, we'll come
back to you again later.
Now, a former Irish diplomat has
said the British-Irish
will only be brought back as a "fall
back position" and would be a sign
that Northern Ireland
is in for a period of direct rule.
Nationalists here and the Dublin
government have called
for the return of the body,
which last met 11 years ago,
to allow the two governments
to plot a way forward
in the absence of devolution.
Gareth Gordon has been looking
at the odds of Stormont coming back.
For the British and Irish, the race
to restart devolution in Northern
Ireland runs without end. Just when
they think they are in the final
straight, they are dragged back to
My powers as Secretary of
State for Northern are and are
limited. The scope of this house to
pass legislation on devolved issues
Compared to that,
picking a winner at Chaston seems
easy. People who know about betting
think Stormont is ably conducted.
think it's dead in the water, they
need to bring the other parties in
to help negotiate.
What are the odds
of Stormont coming back?
take the odds on that.
something to bet your house on, it
will never work with that crowd.
options available to Karen Bradley
appear limited. Some form of light
touch direct rule appears to be the
front runner, in front of a shadow
Assembly. A British-Irish
Intergovernmental Conference seemed
to be a safe bet although odds may
have lengthened after remarks by the
Taoiseach. An Assembly and
full-blown direct rule remain
outsiders. Whichever option Karen
Bradley puts money on, someone will
attempt to put a in her way. Let's
look more closely at the options. A
shadow Assembly would keep the
political class is busy until the
real thing comes back. It's been
tried before, most notably in the
1980s. It did not end well after
being dissolved by the government
against unionist wishes.
say 21 officers were injured, more
than half required hospital
treatment. Police in the building
were asked by the clerk of the
Assembly to clear the chamber. They
cleared in and politicians were
It was mainly a DUP
protest although I youthful Jeffrey
Donaldson was one of two Ulster
Unionists also evicted.
I have two
members of my family murdered by the
Provos and what do you do in return
for that? You throw me out of the
forum for which I was elected.
other Ulster unionist member
involved remembers it.
I remember a
police officer saying to me, do you
want carried out or would you walk
out? I walked out with two policemen
in front and two policemen behind
and they left me at the top of the
steps with members who had been
carried out and some of them didn't
do in a very dignified way but it
was an interesting experience.
experience missed by the SDLP and
Sinn Fein, who boycotted that
Assembly and didn't seem keen on
The Secretary of State
hasn't made detail available but the
idea we go into a talking shop while
there is no movement on issues which
has caused the blockage is a waste
of everybody's time.
transitional Assembly fared better.
Its first day got off to a bad start
with an unwelcome visitor called
Michael Stone. The then Speaker
doubts the present government would
repeat the exercise.
they would try this to keep the MLAs
who were directly involved in
negotiations, to keep them thinking
of themselves as parliamentarians
and they would have work to do in
the Assembly, it would still be
alive thing. I think that is a good
Nationalists want the
Conference, last held here 11 years
Devolved administration is the
number-1 objective and if they
achieve that by another method, that
is fine. I see the conference as a
fallback solution, it talks go well
then you wouldn't want to antagonise
local parties, especially the DUP.
If you had the conference it would
be a sign we are battening down for
Whichever ever or she
backs, the Secretary of State may
find that she cannot win.
Gareth Gordon reporting.
Let's hear what my guests
Danny Kennedy, Claire Sugden
and Daithi McKay make of those odds
for a return to Stormont.
Daithi McKay, if you were a betting
man, would you take a punt
on the Assembly coming back
any time soon?
I don't think so. In terms of the
pretend Assembly, I don't think
Nationalists will touch that with a
barge pole, as far as the main
nationalist parties are concerned
the only show in town is the
have come a long way. Danny Kennedy,
will you be pushing for a pretend
I'm still trying to come
to terms with the crowd by Daithi
McKay about John Tait. I think what
is more likely is more negotiations,
I think this suggestion I would have
is that they be made multiparty and
not just to parties because that
would lend some difference to it and
it might create a better atmosphere.
You were optimistic that the process
can be reinvigorated sooner rather
than later although it ended in a
complete shambles a few weeks ago.
think there will be one more attempt
by the two governments to achieve
that, whether or not it is in the
two largest parties' interests to
have those negotiations, to widen
them out to other parties or stay
where they are with the Westminster
influence of the DUP and the
prospect of an Irish election for
Claire Sundin, do you
think the people will stand for some
kind of transitional shadow
Assembly? They want people to get on
with their job or clear off and find
I think anything short
of an executive and the Assembly,
anything else would normalise the
situation and allow the other actors
involved, namely the British
government in terms of their
interest around Brexit, to let
Northern Ireland to go on this way.
People speak to me every day about
how frustrated the art that
institutions are not running because
it affects them day-to-day so I
worry this is another stopgap so
they can get on with the other
politics distracting them, and
perhaps now that the budget has been
passed at Westminster, maybe there
is a chance for talks because it
means the DUP have had an input into
a budget so maybe now they might get
back to talking.
We will find out in
due course if you are onto
something. Thank you all for joining
A St Patrick's Day
reception is taking place
in the White House this evening.
Earlier the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar,
met Donald Trump for the traditional
shamrock ceremony in the Oval
So will a trip across the pond
help improve relations
between the parties after last
month's failed negotiations?
Shane Harrison is in Washington
for us this evening.
What's happening as we
speak, then, Shane?
The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has
just left the White House after
presenting Donald Trump with the
traditional bowl of shamrock. There
is a reception on going, not present
are the current leaders and deputy
leaders of Sinn Fein or the DUP but
Gerry Adams, the former Sinn Fein
leader, and Ian Paisley, the DUP MP
for North Antrim. The two men met
earlier, they discussed our
hardboard and Brexit and the
American president said he would
like to visit Ireland soon and that
he had a great property there. The
Doon Bay golf club.
And that golf
club and the association with Donald
Trump and Leo Varadkar now causing a
bit of a difficulty for Mr Rudd cart
because of previous contacts he had
with the now president a couple of
Leo Varadkar surprised
many people in his speech at Capitol
Hill when he went off script as if
his sudden memory about a previous
contact with Donald Trump had come
to him and he remembered that four
years ago he was in London for R&B
weekend when Ireland played England
and he got a phone call from someone
saying Donald Trump wanted to talk
to him about planning permission, to
object to planning permission for up
wind farm. Leo Varadkar said he
contacted Clare county council and
the wind farm was refused. He says
he wasn't responsible for that bit
of Donald Trump wants to give him
credit, he will accept that. Clare
county council say they have no
record of Leo Varadkar's
What about the
appointment of a new US peace envoy?
There had been speculation that
perhaps to Donald Trump would
announce the appointment of at UN
special envoy. He didn't seem that
keen on it, American encouragement
but no need for an honest broker.
This was an issue I spoke too with
Congressman Richie Neal, who was a
Democrat and friend of Ireland, and
I asked where we stood with regard
In September I spoke to the
president who indicated to me he
intended Philippe to do that and
later General Kelly confirmed they
intended to do that. There has been
a delay with the process but I
understand they renewed their
interest and expect to go forward.
When do we expect an announcement?
The White House say every day is a
challenge, they seem to start with
intentions but get derailed by
Might the fact that
Rex Tillerson is no longer Secretary
of State complicate it?
that it was the Trump
Administration's position that they
would appoint an envoy.
it didn't seem too keen on envoy, he
said he was looking for
encouragement but not an honest
There might be an argument
that suggests differences between
the parties now are relatively small
compared to what they were 25 years
ago so he might be saying that
nurturing might be what they are
interested in, at the same time I
think getting those institutions up
and running in a representative
democracy are critical.
Irish America blame for this
Irish America would
indicate the DUP is responsible for
the delay and I think Irish America
play an important role in offering
dimension to the success of the Good
What happens over the neck couple of
The Taoiseach will meet the US
Vice-President Mike Pence there is
Irish media interest in that. Mike
Pence is not noted for his support
of gay rights. Leo Varadkar has been
referencing his support for gay
rights, for same-sex marriage. There
is a lot of interest in that. Later
on in the day he will head to New
York where of course there is the
St Patrick parade on Saturday.
very much .thank indeed.
Let's hear from tonight's
O'Connor and Alex Kane.
Welcome to you both. Good to have
you back. Let's talk about
transparency in government first of
all. Fionnuala, how big an issue is
it that Davidster Sterling said what
had he said at the RHI inquiry?
seems to be a pretty big issue thchl
is the head of the civil certificate
advice behaving in a way that poses
as many questions about civil
servants as it does about
politicians. That is an easy
statement for him to make when he
suggests that the two main parties
were involved with no way of... The
two main parties suggested this
policy if they didn't actually
enforce it of discouraging minutes.
He didn't actually say - they said
you must do this. He suggested a
culture, I think that was the way he
put. It which leaves you to suppose
that civil servants decided off
their own bat that this was a way to
please the ministers. That they
would not go for minutes. Really,
that's a dreadful, very uncivil
servant position to take.
equally be the case that it was the
ministers who decided that that's
the road they wanted to go down and
prevailed upon the civil servants
Civil servants are supposed to
be masters and mistresses of clear
and logical pros. This was an owe
bake thing to say. It was also a
fairly shocking thing to say at the
moment we are told repeatedly that
civil servants are carrying
government. That we are lucky to
have them carrying government in
lieu of the politicians. I was taken
by the suggestion that might just
have been an intended as distraction
from the RHI inquiry, from David
Sterling's role in the RHI scheme.
It's a theory he floated. No
evidence to suggest -
What a weird
thing for a civil servant to be
The former senior civil
servant who we spoke to who said it
was indeed pretty prevalent
particularly on the part of the DUP
told us it's got a lot worse in
recent years. FoI began when the
government's position was to give
information. That turned around into
trying to not give the information
to members of the public.
don't know for certain is how long
it's been going on. Certainly the
information seems to be that SDLUP,
and Alliance ministers are saying
they had no experience of it. They
didn't understand this. Did it
happen in 2016 when the DUP and Sinn
Fein cut their own deal.
not. In the Finance Committee
inquiry into Nama in November 2015
David Sterling was then telling
Daithi McKay was a problem and they
needed to stop doing that.
that. It the doesn't seem to have
changed. The most extraordinary
thing about Sterling's comment was
that this seems to have been done to
spare the blushes of the Sinn Fein
and the DUP. That will they might be
doing or making unpopular decisions.
Thinking the unthinkable.
timing of this, Mark, two weeks
after Sinn Fein and the DUP falling
about over pieces of paper which
ended up being leaked. This man now
saying - we are keeping touch away.
. The whole idea is consist sent i
and continuity. We record this, but
won't bother with this. Say a new
minister comes in or disagreements
with the parties you need records.
If it will embarst ration a minister
further down-the-line, tough, that
is what politics is.
Let us tie it
into the other conversation about
whether or not transition/shadow
Assembly could be in the offing
sooner rather than later. If you
were a betting woman, would you take
a punt on that?
Oh, not for a
minute. It ties together in an odd
way, when you think of it. The
suggestion is that they we have to
have the Assembly back because civil
servants should not be left to run
government because this isn't right.
This isn't democratic. Meanwhile we
get this intervention by a civil
servants which makes us think, are
we so sure about the civil service?
What I do think is absolutely
unlikely is that there would be any
nationalist buy into this at all. As
again Daithi McKay said. Who would
will go back to that? This is
pre-Good Friday Agreement
proposition. No Executive, an
Assembly that is a talking shop.
Final thought on that. Nationalists
won't wear it, Alex
I don't think
anybody will wear it. The public
won't wear it. A real Assembly that
doesn't work. Even bring in a
pretend, that is crazy stuff.
will leave it there. Thank you both
That's it from The View
for this week.
Join me for Sunday Politics
at 11.35am, here on BBC One.
But we leave you tonight
with the observations of one
of Britain's finest civil servants
on what should - and should not -
be a matter of public record.
What is your problem?
minutes aren't written yet.
So what should I do?
The problem is, the Prime
Minister did try to suppress the
chapter, didn't he?
I don't know,
Didn't he, don't you
What I remember is
irrelevant Bernard. If the minutes
don't say he did, he didn't.
want me to fallify the minutes.
want nothing of the sort. It's up to
you Bernard, what do you want?
want to have a clear conscience.
When did you
acquire this taste for luxuries? The
purpose of minutes is not to record
events it's to protect people.
do not take notes if the Prime
Minister says something he did not
mean to say, particularly if it
contradicts something he has said
pub iically. But how do I justify
You are his servant.
Join Mark Carruthers and guests on Thursdays for The View - the week's political news, comments and expert analysis. The View reports events at Stormont and Westminster and how they are affecting issues such as health and the economy. It follows the ups and downs of the political parties and debates the highs and lows of the political week. It also has an alternative view on the week's political headlines.