Eamonn McCann: Whatever about Sinn Féin, there are questions for the DUP
‘If a party in any other jurisdiction were involved in such a variety of controversial matters, it might be thought unsuitable for office until all suspicion was dispelled’
First Minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson and DUP North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds arrive at Downing Street, London, for a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday. Photograph: John Stillwell/PA Wire
The North’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, met David Cameron on Tuesday to convey his party’s concern about suggestions that the Provisional IRA has not gone away nor relinquished its association with Sinn Féin and that, in view of the murder last month of Kevin McGuigan, allegedly by current members of the IRA, Sinn Féin is unfit for membership of the Stormont Executive.
Sinn Féin has shown restraint in not raising the question of whether the DUP is a suitable party of government, given a string of controversies in which prominent members have allegedly been involved.
In early 2010, it became public that Robinson’s wife, Iris, had had an affair with a teenager and had obtained loans totalling £50,000 to enable him to finance start-up of a restaurant. However, she had not told Castlereagh council, which gave permission for the restaurant to open, of her monetary interest. Mrs Robinson was a member of the council at the time.
Mrs Robinson was expelled from the DUP and resigned all her public offices: she was also a member of the Stormont Assembly and an MP at Westminster. The council was later to declare that Mrs Robinson had broken no rules. The matter remained, however, a source of embarrassment to the DUP.
Against almost all predictions, Mr Robinson lost his East Belfast Westminster seat in the May 2010 general election. It was widely assumed that his wife’s difficulties had been a factor in his defeat.
In July 2011, Red Sky, a company based in east Belfast, lost a £7million maintenance contract with the NI Housing Executive (NIHE) following allegations of sub-standard work and financial irregularities. It was claimed that the company had charged for work which hadn’t been done, including work on houses which didn’t exist. The firm, which contested the claims, went into administration. Members of the DUP, including Mr Robinson and DUP housing minister Nelson McCausland, then made efforts to persuade the NIHE to reverse its decision and bring Red Sky back on board.
The online news service, the Detail, revealed that McCausland had met with Red Sky representatives in late July 2011. Although the company was in administration, none of the administrators had been informed about the meeting. Three days later McCausland met with NIHE chairman Brian Rowntree and pressed him to reinstate Red Sky’s contract.
On the following day, Rowntree wrote to the permanent secretary to Mr McCausland’s Department of Social Development, expressing “serious concerns and misgivings”. He described the minister’s intervention as “incomprehensible”.
Meantime, McCausland’s special adviser, Stephen Brimstone, phoned Jenny Palmer, a DUP councillor and member of the NIHE board, to urge her to change her vote and support a restoration of Red Sky. She says he told her that she was “to do what she was told” by the DUP. She refused and is no longer a member of the party.
The event was also aided by the PSNI slashing the bill for policing by 86 per cent – to £5,000. The taxpayer picked up the outstanding rest of the bill – £30,000. No other recent event has enjoyed such favourable treatment.
The DUP may have questions to answer, too, about the “firesale” of Nama properties in the North. The Northern loans, valued at €4.5 billion, were sold for €1.5 billion to US venture capital company Cerebus.
In the Dáil in July, Mick Wallace claimed that the deal involved £7 million being set aside for payments to “fixers”. It subsequently emerged that such a sum had been deposited in an Isle of Man bank in the name of Ian Coulter, a partner in Belfast law firm Tughans, which was providing advice on the sale. Tughans has claimed it alerted the Law Society to the account while Coulter has asserted that he personally informed the law firm about the account.
The money has since been retrieved. Coulter left the firm in January.
Nama’s Northern committee supervised the transaction. The committee was set up following talks between Northern Finance Minister Sammy Wilson and his Dublin counterpart, the late Brian Lenihan. Wilson nominated former Red Sky director Frank Cushnahan and former NIHE chairman Rowntree to the committee.
Cushnahan and Coulter had made an earlier unsolicited approach to another US company, Pimco, to buy the Nama loans. Pimco had problems with suggested “fees” for third parties and withdrew, saying that after “due diligence” it had “decided not to . . . agree to any arrangement with those parties”.
Gareth Robinson’s company had been contracted to manage an event hosted by Tughans in 2012. He says neither he nor his company’s representatives had any involvement of any kind in the Nama sale.
Some of these matters remain to be clarified. But it can be said that if a party in any other jurisdiction was involved in such a variety of controversial matters, it might be thought unsuitable for office until all suspicion was dispelled.