Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Storm brewing for DUP in Red Sky row

Claims in the Spotlight programme cap a bad few weeks for the DUP and may even cause more unionists to disengage from politics, says Alex Kane

Nelson McCausland is in the firing line

It was October last year when I was first made aware that Spotlight was planning a programme about Nelson McCausland, Red Sky, the Housing Executive, Jenny Palmer and the DUP. The fact that it took a further nine months before it was broadcast gives you an indication of the legal niceties and sensitivities involved.

The programme was also an example of something that you don't see all that often nowadays: good, old-fashioned investigative journalism.

The first whisper of a story, the evidence, the witnesses, the double-checking, the interviews, further checking, the continuing chase and the nailing down of facts.

In an era when stories are turned around in a matter of hours and when anyone with access to a Facebook, blog or Twitter account can be an armchair expert based on nothing more than rumour and innuendo, it's refreshing to see this sort of dogged journalism.

The programme was about perception as much as anything else. In one sense the truth or otherwise of some of the allegations is a side issue, albeit a side issue that could have huge personal ramifications for some people. But in all stories of this kind you find yourself asking, "how would this look to a reasonable observer"?

In other words, when you strip away the claim and counter-claim from those involved in the programme and the he-said-she-said nature of some of the 'evidence', what perception is left? Sometimes the problem with evidence is that it isn't much more than circumstantial evidence: and circumstantial evidence, depending on how it is presented, can just as easily steer you to one conclusion as another.

This is also the first major political story which hasn't centred on a spat between unionism and republicanism or between the DUP/Sinn Fein and the smaller executive parties.

And again, that's what makes it interesting, because it's as close as we have come to a normal so-called 'scandal'. So it will be interesting to see how the Assembly, Executive and individual political parties react. There will, of course, be a tendency to score political/ electoral points at the DUP's expense, particularly from its unionist rivals.

In fairness to him Nelson McCausland gave a gutsy performance when he appeared before yesterday's meeting of the DSD Committee and responded to the Spotlight allegations on a point-by-point basis.

That said, it was hardly the most robust grilling from committee members, although that may have had more to do with the fact that an official inquiry is going to be established, that the DUP had also instructed its solicitors to 'initiate action against Spotlight and a number of participants,' and that committee members didn't have much time to prepare.

Interestingly, Gregory Campbell has suggested that Spotlight's producers be invited to give evidence to the DSD committee – opening up the possibility of the programme makers being able to present information they didn't have time to use.

Whatever the final outcome of the inquiry, or of any legal action, the programme comes at the end of a bad few weeks for the DUP.

The intra-unionist squabble over the proposed 'shrine' at the Maze shows no signs of ending; the TUV has become the first party to leave the Unionist Forum; the relationship between the DUP and UUP – especially the personal relationship between Robinson and Mike Nesbitt – is deteriorating and becoming increasingly vitriolic; a section of loyalism is also increasingly dissatisfied with Robinson and the DUP; and polls indicate that there is substantial, widespread and ongoing disengagement by unionists from the political/electoral process.

The potential difficulty with the Spotlight programme is that it may nudge even more unionist/pro-Union voters into the disengaged, non-voting lobby. Indeed what really surprised me was the lack of support or defence for the DUP coming from the social media on Wednesday evening or during Thursday.

People who, a few years ago, would have been rallying to their side against more "BBC bias" have been remarkably quiet.

What the party does have in its favour though – and it is a quality that opponents underestimate at their peril– is an ability to circle the wagons and fight back. The DUP has been in difficult corners before, not least during the 'Irisgate' era, but it regroups and recovers pretty quickly.

Spotlight was certainly uncomfortable viewing for DUP members/supporters, but there was nothing in it – or nothing that was shown –to suggest that Robinson's leadership is under threat. The lesson to be drawn, as it always is on occasions like this, is that any suggestion of below-the-radar business may lead to very difficult questions further down the line.

One thing is very clear though, the relationship between key figures in the DSD and the Housing Executive, and some of the practices inside the Housing Executive, leave a great deal to be desired.