DUP blocks inquiry


In some ways it’s reassuring to see the Northern Ireland Assembly tearing strips off ministers about housing maintenance contracts. It’s what we call “normal politics”, and it beats the flag-waving and sectarian name-calling that, the peace process notwithstanding, and sometimes unfairly, are all too quickly associated with the North’s politics. Unfortunately the issue is also one which brings discredit on all politics – “normal politics”, it appears, is about unhealthily close relationships between business and parties ... Sound familiar?

With a cross-community harmony rarely seen, all the parties, except his own Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), have been demanding answers from Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland about what appears to be political interference in the awarding of major Housing Executive (NIHE) contracts.

While several companies have been implicated in overcharging and charging for shoddy work to the tune of some £18 million, one in particular, Red Sky, was the focus of a deeply worrying BBC Spotlight investigation which has raised serious questions for the minisiter to which he has yet to produce convincing replies: why did he insist on the “temporary” renewal of the Red Sky contract after its misbilling had been uncovered; why did, and on whose authority, his political adviser, Stephen Brimstone, ring and bully DUP councillor Jenny Palmer, a member of the NIHE board, into changing her vote to back the contract renewal; why did the minister meet representatives of Red Sky on his own, in breach of ministerial guidelines, while the contract process was under way?

Such concerns have prompted questions in the Assembly, as yet unsubstantiated, about Red Sky-DUP financial links. The company, which employed 450 people, was ultimately placed in administration and the DUP has defended what it said were efforts to protect jobs, particularly in East Belfast. An unrepentant McCausland has also insisted that in opposing the discontinuing of the contract he was only reflecting concern not to treat Red Sky differently from other companies similarly implicated.

On Monday, although the Assembly voted 54-32 for an inquiry, the DUP blocked the resolution using a “petition of concern”, a mechanism under the Belfast Agreement to ensure controversial measures are not passed without genuine cross-community support by allowing a substantial minority to veto proposals .

Like the North’s enforced power sharing, it is as an artificial and “temporary” means of allowing the communities to transition to majority politics, circumventing sectarian-based majoritarian trench warfare. It is ironic – and disgraceful – that the petition should now be used as a means of blocking procedures holding ministers to account that both TDs and MPs would regard as perfectly normal. No advertisement for the North’s new political dispensation.