Barney Cassidy reviews Burned by Sam McBride (380pp £16.99)
If you eat chicken that’s been bought in Tesco, the Co-Operative, Waitrose, Aldi, Iceland or your local takeaway there’s a good chance the animal was one of the several million supplied each week by a company called Moy Park. It’s now owned by a Brazilian company, JBS USA, though
it was founded in Dungannon, county Tyrone. It employs more than 6000 people in the north of Ireland and is so essential to the local economy that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) wanted it classified as a strategic asset. That puts it on a level with the water and electricity supply.
Chickens need a lot of heat if you are going to breed them at industrial scales. Day old chicks are put in heated warehouses. More mature animals can get infections by walking around all day in their own wet excrement. The chicks need to be warm to survive and the older birds are healthier if they are walking on dry shit.
As part of its token activity to address climate change the British government introduced a programme to encourage famers to use renewable sources of energy. The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) subsidised the installation and running of biomass burners for non-domestic properties. Woodchips were the preferred fuel, though it emerged that some farmers worked out that you could burn oats in them as well. That was the least
of the abuses.
Sam McBride, a journalist on the Newsletter, a unionist paper published in Belfast, has written an incredibly detailed and forensic account of how the DUP, and in particular its leader Arlene Foster, were responsible for the design of a local variant of the scheme, allowing people working for the party and their relatives to profit from it, how they cosied up to a Brazilian multi-national and how they, along with their junior coalition partners Sinn Féin, ran an administration that flouted rudimentary principles of honest and transparent public administration. The local civil service emerges just as badly.
Burned has been a sensation in the world of Irish publishing. Within a couple of weeks it has already had three reprints and just about the only person in the north of Ireland who doesn’t intend to read it is Arlene Foster. You can’t blame her. If you really messed up at work and cost your employer an estimated £490m, you wouldn’t want someone writing a best-selling about book about how inept you are.
She was minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment when the scheme was introduced in the north. It had a fairly basic flaw. The subsidy meant that the more fuel you burned the more money you received in subsidy. Boiler installers were telling clients that they could heat empty buildings in winter, leaving the doors and windows open and would be paid for the cost of the woodchips with the subsidy on top. Only very belatedly and after warnings from multiple sources were cost controls put in place.
Little Ulster Orbáns
The picture of the DUP that emerges is profoundly damaging. In common with all the major parties in Ireland, it has a long record of sleaze and corruption ranging from dodgy property deals to taking bungs from unpleasant regimes. But by ploughing through thousands of pages of documents McBride has produced a gripping and microscopic account of just how bent they are. Like Erdogan or Orbán, DUP figures in the local administration would insist that his newspaper pull unflattering stories if they wanted to continue getting government advertising revenue; DUP ministers and special advisors used private email accounts and phones expressly to avoid freedom of information requests; they, along with civil servants, tipped off favoured companies and individuals with advance information that was financially beneficial to them.
Fans of Sinn Féin on the British left are in for a bit of shock. Its rule breaking, corruption and opportunism were every bit as egregious as the DUP’s. Martin McGuinness, in particular, was so keen to keep the local Mickey Mouse parliament running that he let the DUP get away with its gross misconduct. It took a bit of kneejerk DUP sectarianism and some pressure from People Before Profit before Sinn Féin risibly set themselves up as the champions of government with integrity. The Stormont assembly collapsed as a result and hasn’t met since. It’s not much missed. However, what the episode demonstrates is that both Sinn Fein and the DUP see it as a vehicle for distributing jobs money and patronage to their separate electorates. In fact, what’s quite revealing is that the DUP, just as much as their Republican doppelganger, see the London treasury as a bit of a cash dispenser. If a comic strip edition of the book, telling the story in a simplified way, was given to every British household the pressure for a united Ireland would be unstoppable.
Sam McBride is a reminder of what good journalists do. He was appalled by a scandalous waste of public money at a time when local hospitals were in a deep crisis. He followed the facts refusing to be deterred by umpteen threats of legal action and has produced a piece of political writing which is worth reading for anyone who wants to see up close how
politicians lie and put themselves at the service of big business. It’s not just an essential book for readers interested in Irish politics it also illuminates the Marxist theory of the state rather well too.