Belfast Telegraph

Minister faces suspension grilling

A Sinn Fein minister faces a grilling over the suspension of one of Northern Ireland's most senior civil servants, it has emerged.

Paul Priestly, permanent secretary at the Department of Regional Development (DRD), was told to leave his desk by civil service boss Bruce Robinson.

The dramatic move came after Conor Murphy, the Sinn Fein minister who heads Mr Priestly's department, said he had received information which made the civil servant's position "no longer tenable".

The events centre on the crisis-hit government-owned company Northern Ireland Water (NIW), allegations that Mr Priestly mishandled an independent review of its work, and behind-the-scenes developments since the Assembly's powerful Public Accounts Committee (PAC) began a probe of the issues.

His shock suspension, pending an investigation of the growing controversy, has been followed by demands the minister appear before the Assembly committee which scrutinises DRD.

Critics said Mr Murphy has questions to answer over the affair, but his supporters claimed he acted decisively.

It emerged that the minister has offered to appear before the committee within weeks for a special meeting on the growing crisis and is likely to address its members in early September.

The committee will hold a special sitting on Friday to discuss the fallout.

As a robust investigation of the controversy was promised, members of the PAC said voters had to have faith in the operation of government.

PAC member John Dallat said: "The public interest in this is at an all-time high. The inquiry has got to be seen as truly independent."

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