Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Housing Executive contracts: Polite tone of Stormont committee session belied the seriousness of the matter

Under fire: Minister Nelson McCausland
Minister Nelson McCausland
Allegations surrounding the Housing Executive were made in a BBC investigation
Allegations surrounding the Housing Executive were made in a BBC investigation

Red Sky in the morning... DUP warning. The unravelling of the fallout from decisions over Housing Executive contracts still carries the potential to spark a political crisis at Stormont.

But it also yet again throws up the issue of the need for a formal opposition in the Assembly, and calls into question the current scrutiny arrangements.

Why were the concerns revealed in the Spotlight programme not unearthed in the first place by MLAs themselves?

In the round, yesterday’s meeting of the social development committee failed to get to grips with the core of the revelations in the BBC Spotlight programme.

The minister and a member swapped quotes from Shakespeare rather than get into the sequence of events — meetings which were not revealed for months and controversial decisions taken when and by whom.

Nelson McCausland said it would prove to be “much ado about nothing”, the SDLP’s Mark H Durkan came back with “something being rotten” direct from Hamlet, and chairman Alex Maskey counselled against the use of “literary gems”.

The minister was allowed to make an uninterrupted 54-minute address to the committee, most of which heaped condemnation on the programme, which the BBC has defended.

Even allowing that committee members could not be sure of the veracity of the Spotlight disclosures, Mr McCausland got an easy ride.

The quality of the questioning and the polite tone throughout belied the seriousness of the matter.

It appeared that members had not yet studied the Spotlight programme in detail, and to that extent the minister was perhaps enabled to head them off at the pass.

Rather than being grilled on the issue, Mr McCausland was only invited to spell out the guidelines for DUP members on arm’s-length bodies.

Far from being cross-examined over his relationship with former HE chairman Brian Rowntree, who bitterly criticised the minister in the programme, it was instead put to him that their relationship was “fairly fraught”.

Mr McCausland replied the relationship between other senior HE officials “wasn’t great either”.

The Red Sky issue has been bubbling underneath the surface of politics for some time.

It has, at the same time, been apparent that Mr McCausland has had the Housing Executive in his sights for quite a while.

He came under fire for putting the future of the body into review in an announcement made outside the Assembly.

The focus also moved beyond Red Sky when he made clear that the problems at the centre of the entire affair went beyond that specific company, and the district in which it primarily operated.

Red Sky at night... DUP opponents’ — and large swathes of the media’s — delight.