Belfast Telegraph

Email shows suspended civil servant’s link to angry letter

The extent to which a top civil servant drafted a controversial letter to an Assembly committee has been exposed with the release of a key document.

As the Belfast Telegraph revealed on Wednesday, senior civil servant Paul Priestly was suspended for helping to write a furious letter to Stormont's Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

Now the wording Mr Priestly suggested has been made public, with a freedom of information (FOI) release of an email he sent last month. It contains his suggested draft and shows he was responsible for the bulk of the letter received by the PAC.

The email release is the latest development in an increasingly complex controversy surrounding NI Water and its Government paymaster, the Department for Regional Development (DRD).

It stems from a PAC hearing on July 1 on NI Water contractual practices. Some MLAs questioned the impartiality of the independent review team appointed to examine the problem.

A review team member, Peter Dixon from gas company Phoenix, wrote to the committee objecting to this line of questioning. Within days, Phoenix disowned the letter and Mr Dixon retracted it.

Phoenix chairman Sir Gerry Loughran, a former civil service chief, wrote to the PAC stating the questions were “reasonable”.

Now it transpires that Mr Dixon's letter was largely written by Paul Priestly, permanent secretary of the DRD.

But his draft did not include a threat of legal action added by Mr Dixon at the end of his letter.

Mr Priestly was suspended on Tuesday, after confirming his involvement with the letter to his Minister Conor Murphy.

Yesterday's disclosure shows that Mr Priestly emailed Mr Dixon on the day after the PAC hearing, following a conversation with him.

His email stated that he understood Mr Dixon's “upset and frustration” and continued: “You asked for my advice and I suggested that you should write to the PAC Chairman. You asked for a first draft of a letter you might send. I have had a go at a draft. No doubt you will wish to tailor it to your own style and to reinforce any particular points you wish to make.”

Mr Priestly copied his email to two departmental colleagues and the chief executive of NI Water, Laurence MacKenzie.

A spokeswoman for NIW said: “The chief executive did not seek inclusion in this correspondence, did not respond to it and was not asked to take any actions within it. On this basis he deleted it after receiving it. The email has now been recovered and released in response to a specific FOI request.”

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