Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

MLA urges probe into the 'culture of shame' at Northern Ireland's Fire Service

Pacemaker Press 16/11/10 The Fire service tackle a fire at Bouchers cresent causing major damage to some of the stores in Belfast Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

An independent inquiry must be held into misconduct at Northern Ireland’s Fire Service after a senior official quit, it has been urged.

Terry McGonigal, the organisation’s director of finance and performance management, had been on sick leave since December.

His departure was confirmed in an internal email on Thursday.

It follows a turbulent few months for the Fire Service, which has been the subject of three investigations into financial irregularities, including unauthorised bonus payments.

Mr McGonigal was among those who had received an “unapproved, irregular payment”, a Stormont committee heard in October.

SDLP MLA John Dallat, who sits on the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee, said: “Since day one when I was first appointed to the Public Accounts Committee there have been continuous and unrelenting complaints about misconduct, abuse of power and misappropriation of resources at the Fire Service.

“In each and every case there was either a stonewall approach or individuals managed to resign, taking with them full pension rights and no case to answer.”

Fire Service chief executive Jim Wallace announced Mr McGonigal’s decision to quit in the email to board members.

The message said senior management would be looking at the implications of the resignation for the organisation. No reason was given for his departure. Yesterday the Fire Service declined to comment further, except to issue a one-line statement confirming that he had resigned.

Kevin McAdam from Unite said he left the job by his own choice.

“Terry was not under any investigation or facing any charges within the service in relation to any of the stories in the media recently and would totally refute any allegations of that nature at anytime during his career in the service,” he said.

Last October a report substantiated whistleblower allegations about unapproved bonus payments worth £15,200 to senior officers. The audit also identified weaknesses in how whistleblower Linda Ford was treated.

Mr Dallat added: “The resignation of Terry McGonigal comes as no surprise but this does not address the serious issues which have caused so much pain and suffering to others who found themselves suspended from work, posted off to sub-offices and prevented from doing jobs they were appointed to do.” The MLA said that only a fully independent inquiry with robust terms of reference will address the “culture of shame that has hung over the Fire Service”.

Last night Health Minister Edwin Poots, whose department has control over the Fire Service, questioned if an inquiry would be effective.

“Three investigations have recently been carried out into NIFRS’ corporate functions covering a range of issues and another one is currently under way, led by DSD corporate investigations unit,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to restore faith in the Fire Service.

“More broadly, we have seen the costs and time that inquiries have consumed. It is much more effective to carry out investigations and to act on those than to engage in inquiries that, very often, come many years after something has happened and many years after the issues have been resolved.”

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