The head of the civil service here, David Sterling, has said that a practice had grown among civil servants of not taking notes at ministerial meetings, thus avoiding awkward situations should future Freedom of Information requests occur. He said this non-note-taking practice was prevalent owing to the sensitivities of the DUP and Sinn Féin. Yesterday Arlene Foster at the RHI tribunal declared that Sterling was talking “nonsense”. She said she wasn’t aware of any lapse in note-taking at ministerial meetings. Somebody here is telling…how shall we describe it…an alternative set of facts, a porkie, a contrary view, a lie. Take your pick.
If David Sterling made the whole thing up, what would his motive be? Maybe as he says, so that no paper trail would exist that could incriminate the ministers involved. By and large, there would have been two kinds of ministers involved: DUP ministers and Sinn Féin ministers. Would the head of the Northern Ireland civil service have felt equal concern to shield the Shinners from embarrassing FOI requests as he would DUP people?
Maybe, maybe not. But here’s an interesting fact that might throw some light. In my recent book, Martin McGuinness: The Man I Knew, several of the interviewees speak of McGuinness’s relations with his civil servants when he became Minister for Education. They claim that the head of that group of civil servants had to make clear to his staff that they must treat the new Minister for Education with the same respect as they would anyone else appointed to the post. As it happened, that’s precisely what they did. In fact, so good were McGuinness’s relations, when he left some of that staff were said to be in tears.
The point of that story is not to dwell on McGuinness’s abilities to change hostile attitudes into friendly and even affectionate attitudes. The point is that the civil servants needed to be told to respect the new Minister. Their default position, it would appear, would have been one of hostility to this new Sinn Féin minister.
So I’m going to go out on a limb here and raise the possibility that the civil servants who didn’t note-take (and why would David Sterling make up such a story if it wasn’t true?) were more likely to have been concerned for the protection of DUP ministers than of Sinn Féin ministers. I could be wrong, of course. The civil servants could have been concerned that Sinn Féin ministers should be protected from embarrassment. It’s possible. But something in my gut tells me that’s unlikely.
Arlene Foster says she wasn’t aware of any lapse in note-taking by civil servants, and she had never suggested any such practice. But sometimes you don’t need to tell people stuff. Sometimes, if you’re a clever worker, you sense what the boss wants without him/her saying it. That way, your boss is likely to think more highly of you than if s/he had had to tell you to do it.
So here’s the question: if what the head of the NI civil service says is true, and civil servants got into the habit of not keeping notes/minutes of ministerial meetings, who do you think they had in mind to protect: DUP ministers or Sinn Féin ministers?
No prizes for most credible answer.