Belfast Telegraph

Murphy in war of words with SDLP over water furore

Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy has rounded on the SDLP over its support for sacked NI Water directors.

The Sinn Fein minister was speaking in the wake of a call by SDLP MLA John Dallat for the reinstatement of all four directors, including axed chairman Chris Mellor.

It has emerged that Mr Dallat publicly called for the sacking of Mr Mellor two years ago.

Mr Murphy was back at his desk yesterday from holiday after a week of intense controversy over his department's handling of the NI Water saga.

Its Permanent Secretary Paul Priestly was suspended for helping to write a furious letter to the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee in connection with the row.

And the investigation process that led to the boardroom sackings also came under fire, with SDLP MLAs among the most vociferous critics.

Mr Murphy accused the party of being “inconsistent”, adding: “The SDLP tends to operate on the basis of today's Press release and then tomorrow can be something completely different. And if they can get a headline out of it, they seem to be satisfied.” The four part-time NIW directors were dismissed in March over procurement practices at the company. Some £28m worth of contracts were awarded without Government rules on competitive tendering being followed.

The independence of the review team that investigated the case has been questioned, but Mr Murphy yesterday underlined his full support for the process.

Mr Dallat's call for Mr Mellor's dismissal as NIW chairman came at an Assembly Regional Development committee meeting in March 2008.

It followed the discovery of a major miscalculation in the water company's projected revenue.

The SDLP MLA challenged a Government official, saying: “When will you sack the chairman, the chief executive and the chief accountant? I mean it.”

Mr Mellor was NIW chairman at that time, but subsequently was its acting chief executive for a period of 14 months

An SDLP spokesman said: “The SDLP regrets that the minister has chosen to introduce party politics into this important issue.

“Rather than engaging in cheap attacks unbecoming of his position as a Government minister he should be concentrating at restoring public confidence and accountability at the heart of his department which is presently badly lacking.”

Mr Murphy yesterday said he had “lost confidence” in the four NI Water directors, following both the contract revelations and their response to them.

He said they seemed more focused on “damage limitation” and “questioning the integrity” of the investigation than “actually dealing with the issues”.

Speaking of his discussions with the directors before their dismissal, the minister added: “They did not challenge the fact that what was happening in the company was happening and they didn't say to me that they didn't have responsibility for it as board members.”

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