Belfast Telegraph

Conor Murphy back to tackle departmental disarray

Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy heads back to his desk today, planning “key meetings” in the wake of the NI Water controversies and the suspension of a top official.

Mr Murphy returns to work after a holiday disrupted by unprecedented upheaval in his department.

Its permanent secretary, Paul Priestly, was suspended last Tuesday after a telephone conversation with the Minister, who was in Germany.

Mr Priestly admitted in the call to helping write a furious letter for a company boss to the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee.

This strongly-worded letter was sent by Peter Dixon, head of Phoenix Natural Gas, who had been part of an Independent Review Team that investigated contract practices at NI Water.

Mr Dixon's letter was disowned by Phoenix within days and withdrawn. It had condemned questions raised by some MLAs at a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) hearing last month, questioning his independence.

Civil servants are required to respect and fully co-operate with the PAC.

Last week also saw renewed controversy over the NI Water investigation and Mr Murphy's subsequent decision to axe four part-time directors from its board.

At the heart of the saga lies procurement practices at NIW. Over 70 contracts — worth over £28m — were awarded without

following competition rules.

The Sinn Fein Minister is standing by the dismissals and is expected to underline that stance today.

The PAC is examining the NI Water contractual practices, while civil service chiefs are planning an investigation into the circumstances that led to Mr Priestly's suspension.

Mr Murphy said: “Matters relating to the Independent Review Team report and the governance failures at NI Water, and separately, events following the PAC hearing on NI Water which led to the suspension of Paul Priestly, are now both the subject of inquiry. I consider these investigations to be the right and proper course of action.”

The Minister added: “The core work of my department continues.”

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