Belfast Telegraph

DUP accused of ‘chicanery’ after veto on inquiry into its minister

By Noel McAdam

The DUP has been accused of using “political chicanery” to block an inquiry into allegations of political interference in the allocation of public housing contracts.

Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland has denied personal involvement in the awarding of property maintenance deals by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) which runs low-cost social accommodation, despite claims his staff pressured a member of the organisation's governing board in an effort to extend one multi-million-pound agreement.

During a highly charged debate at Stormont yesterday, the DUP blocked a motion calling for an inquiry into allegations of wrongful political interference.

But a DUP motion demanding an inquiry should be broadened to take in the failure of previous ministers including the SDLP’s Alex Attwood to investigate corruption claims, including over-charging by contractors, also fell.

And no vote was taken on hardliner Jim Allister’s amendment calling on Mr McCausland to resign after it appeared the Traditional Unionist Voice leader was the only MLA in favour.

A day of high political drama at Stormont sparked by the allegations of a BBC Spotlight investigation ended with no motions being passed and no real business being transacted.

Instead, a two-and-a-half-hour debate was characterised by inter-party skirmishing, attempts to smear other parties beyond the DUP and acrimonious personal bickering.

Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Alliance also united to demand Mr McCausland should step aside while inquiries — including one already launched by the Stormont committee which monitors him — can be completed. Their agreed motion also supported by small parties including the Greens and NI21 “noted” the allegations of “serious and wrongful political interference in the Housing Executive” and that the minister had “purposely misled” both the Assembly and the committee.

But the DUP introduced the petition of concern mechanism meaning any motion would have to gain majority support among both unionists and nationalists — and with 38 MLAs it can automatically ensure the motion will fail.

But far from blocking the truth, DUP members including Finance Minister Sammy Wilson insisted that the party was actively seeking the truth by including the role of former Housing Executive chairman Brian Rowntree and “the range of companies similar to Red Sky involved in alleged over-charging”.

The main motion collapsed, however, even though a majority of 54 members — 16 unionists, 32 nationalists and six ‘others’ —voted for it, with 32 DUP MLAs opposed.

Opening the debate — just two days into what should have been the Assembly’s summer recess —

Sinn Fein’s Caitriona Ruane said: “I am calling on the minister to do the honourable thing and step aside from his role as Social Development Minister upon completion of inquiry and investigative processes. Anything less will leave our political system open to ridicule, because his actions and the actions of his political adviser have created the thought in people's minds that politicians are more concerned about boxing off their political supporters than they are about conducting themselves with probity and fairness.”

Ms Ruane said there was no place across the island for the “brown envelope culture”, and the DUP’s Gregory Campbell quipped it would have been a sizeable envelope “to get £26m in Northern Bank notes into it” stolen by the IRA.

Proposing his party’s amendment to the main motion, the East Londonderry MP argued: “The social development committee needs to get on with the job of unearthing what happened between

all of these companies, the Housing Executive and any others who are associated.”

TUV MLA Mr Allister, however, accused the DUP of attempting to divert and divide attention away from the minister in “a desperate attempt to muddy the waters as much as they can”.

“It is quite clear that the minister, through his special adviser, was in the business of promoting not just a party interest but a commercial interest, with which the party is aligned,” he said.

The SDLP’s Mark H Durkan argued: “We need to get to the bottom of the allegations of political interference, and it appears that the DUP is determined to thwart that quest for the truth.

“While the DUP may invoke political chicanery to evade accountability to this Assembly for their ministerial actions, those accused of wrongdoing must not be able to side-step the rigours of the law.”

Ulster Unionist Michael Copeland (right) said the company which Mr McCausland met was Turkington Holdings, of Co Armagh, “a company that appears to have links with his party”, and he had misled both the committee and the Assembly.

“If that was done as an attempt to hide the fact that he decided to suspend the supply and fitting of double glazing off the back of a meeting with a link company, then, again, I am afraid that he has serious questions to answer,” the East Belfast MLA added.

Health Minister Edwin Poots, however, said: “Nelson McCausland is one of the politicians least susceptible to corruption.

“I cannot imagine him sipping Champagne on a yacht on the French Riviera in his spare time.

“If you want to know what Nelson does in his spare time, he is at the Linen Hall Library or Belfast Central Library looking up the work of some obscure Presbyterian clergyman.

“Nelson is not in the least bit corrupt.”

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