DUP will use vote-blocking tactic to keep Nelson McCausland in his job
The DUP is set to use blocking tactics to thwart a renewed Assembly attempt to rebuke Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland and trigger his removal from office.
When MLAs return from their summer recess next month, Mr McCausland is likely to face a 'double whammy' of sharp criticism designed to force his resignation.
Almost all other parties appear prepared to back motions censuring the minister after his scrutiny committee accused him of deliberately misleading them and the embarrassing 'naming and shaming' of four building contractors which spectacularly backfired on Mr McCausland.
But his party is preparing again to employ the 'petition of concern' mechanism which would require a majority of both unionist and nationalist MLAs.
With 38 out of the 108 Assembly members, the DUP can then automatically ensure any vote against their minister – even if backed by every other party – is declared null and void.
Nonetheless the pressure on Mr McCausland continued to build yesterday – with the most trenchant criticism coming from fellow unionists.
The UUP's Michael Copeland said DUP leader Peter Robinson needed to explain why Mr McCausland had not been removed from his post.
The East Belfast MLA said: "In any other administration in the UK, Nelson McCausland would have already been sacked as a minister.
"His time in office has seen more families waiting on homes, increased levels of homelessness and more people trapped in welfare dependency.
TUV leader Jim Allister said: "Minister McCausland within a fortnight is found guilty of deliberately misleading his Assembly Committee and has now been proven to have propagated damaging and false allegations against four employers, and, yet, under the toothless Ministerial Code, he can arrogantly thumb his nose at all concerned and carry on regardless.
Last year Mr McCausland named four building contractor firms in the Assembly over allegations of £18m overpayments which he called a "scandal", but said at the time it was not clear if "incredible incompetence" or "wilful corruption" was to blame.
However, it emerged this week one of the four firms was actually underpaid for Housing Executive maintenance work and the amount owed by the other three was only a fraction of the £18m figure which Mr McCausland blamed HE chairman Donald Hoodless for giving him.
It came after the Social Development Committee concluded in a major report that Mr McCausland had misled them by claiming he had met a lobby group rather than a firm which were donors to the DUP.
Mr McCausland last night responded to the criticism.
He said: "It is regrettable that £2m of public money has had to be written off but £670,000 has been recouped for the public purse from three of the companies and an underpayment to Dixons has been corrected.
"We now have new systems and new contracts in place in the Housing Executive to ensure that this does not happen again.
"I may not have got it right every time but as a result of my actions the NIHE has better governance structures."
Concerns grow over widespread use of petitions
Petitions of concern were intended as a copper-fastened guarantee that one community in the Assembly could not over-ride the other.
There have been growing concerns over recent years that the mechanism is being abused and employed for the most part to protect party political concerns.
In essence, the mechanism can be triggered by any combination of parties who can muster 30 votes between them.
That means any decision reached in the Stormont chamber has to have a majority from both unionists and nationalists.
The only party with sufficient Assembly numbers to ensure it can block any measure it does not like is the DUP, which has 38 MLAs. It can use this tactic to avert any threat to its ministers, such as under-fire Mr McCausland.
In contrast Sinn Fein also tried, but failed, to stop Jim Allister’s special advisers legislation in its tracks — because with just 29 members it fell one short of the threshold.
The Belfast Telegraph last year revealed that, between the restoration of devolution and March 2013, there was a total of 56 petitions. Some single issues — including the Caravans Bill and legislation underpinning the then new Department of Justice in the 2010-11 session — have sparked several petitions.
An Assembly taskforce set up to look at a more worthy alternative to petitions of concern had to admit defeat because there was no consensus. The DUP’s Gregory Campbell accused Alliance’s Trevor Lunn of bringing the Assembly into disrepute in claiming the committee meetings looking at an alternative had lasted just 20 minutes. “They lasted at least 25 minutes,” he insisted.
Mr Allister said: “What a useless report from an apparently utterly useless committee.”