Eamonn McCann: Assembly committee powerless in the face of ‘abuse of power’
‘All parties other than the DUP voted to “note” the report which had castigated McCausland and Brimstone while upholding Palmer’s account. The report was “not worth the paper it was written on”, scoffed McCausland’
‘Jim Allister, leader of Traditional Unionist Voice, accused the DUP of “the worst excesses of the abuse of power” in the Assembly’s lifetime.’ Photograph:Paul Faith/PA
An editorial in the Irish News last Thursday referred to “a wide-ranging campaign involving the London and Dublin governments attempting to find a compromise which will . . . prevent the collapse of our devolved institutions”. However, the paper added, “If the DUP. . . is able to get away with the hounding of a member who was determined to take a principled stand, it is increasingly doubtful if the institutions are worth preserving.”
The reference was to Lisburn councillor Jenny Palmer. On Tuesday, she and her husband, John, also a councillor, resigned from the DUP. It is too soon to say what the implications will be. But Ms Palmer has shone a light into some of the darker reaches of the northern political machinery. Many may indeed wonder whether what they can see is worth saving.
Palmer’s offence in the eyes of her party had been to tell the BBC Spotlight programme two years ago that she had been pressurised by a DUP political adviser to change her vote on the board of the NI Housing Executive (NIHE) so as to support the extension of an £8 million-a-year maintenance contract with east Belfast building company Red Sky.
At a housing board meeting in March 2011, Palmer backed a resolution giving Red Sky three months’ notice of termination of its contract. The board had considered a catalogue of complaints about its work standards. Some west Belfast tenants had said that, far from leaving their homes in better shape, Red Sky had rendered them uninhabitable. The board also heard allegations of overcharging.
In June 2011, a DUP group including housing minister Nelson McCausland met representatives of Red Sky to discuss the company’s problems. Red Sky was by now in administration. But the administrator, consultancy firm BDO, was not present.
In July, the agenda for a NIHE board meeting included, at McCausland’s request, a proposal to reverse the March decision on Red Sky. It was then, Palmer told Spotlight, that she received a phone call from McCausland’s special adviser, Stephen Brimstone. Over the course of an eight-minute conversation, she said, Brimstone had instructed her repeatedly and in brusque terms that she was to vote to bring Red Sky back on board; she must “put the party first”.
“In any other institution, heads would have rolled,” committee chairman Alex Maskey of Sinn Féin told the Assembly. SDLP committee member Dolores Kelly described McCausland as “unfit to hold high office”. Jim Allister, leader of Traditional Unionist Voice, accused the DUP of “the worst excesses of the abuse of power” in the Assembly’s lifetime.
The committee also reported that it had no power to impose sanctions on anyone.
It has also emerged that a separate civil service inquiry into the Brimstone-Palmer phone call had recommended disciplinary action against the special adviser. Under Stormont’s rules, however, only the minister who had appointed Brimstone could authorise disciplinary action against him, which he had chosen not to do.
All 19 special advisers at Stormont have senior civil service status but are answerable solely to their political parties.
In the Assembly on Monday last week, all parties other than the DUP voted to “note” the report which had castigated McCausland and Brimstone while upholding Palmer’s account. The report was “not worth the paper it was written on”, scoffed McCausland.
It was announced at Stormont the following day that Brimstone had been promoted to act as special adviser to First Minister Peter Robinson at an enhanced salary of just under £92,000 a year.
At the same time, Palmer was considering a letter from DUP headquarters telling her that she faced disciplinary charges for having spoken to the BBC about “internal” party matters.
The inability of the Assembly to hold officials to account hasn’t come about by accident or oversight. Ministries are parcelled out to parties according to their Assembly strength and the parties are then left to run their departments as they see fit. It is a key element of the deal done in April 1998, and emblematic of the shape of the society which it is intended should emerge, that power at Stormont is not shared but shared out.
The Red Sky affair is part of the price to be paid for sustaining the Belfast Agreement arrangements. It may be that some will come to believe that the price isn’t right.