Belfast Telegraph

Red Sky contracts row: Party tried to damage my integrity, says DUP councillor Jenny Palmer

By Noel McAdam

A councillor at the centre of a long-running internal DUP row has told a Stormont inquiry she had concerns there had been an effort to "keep the sectarian card" alive in relation to an alleged Housing Executive scandal.

Jenny Palmer also accused the party of attempting to use her as a "political pawn".

She said a senior DUP adviser, Stephen Brimstone, told her "the party comes first" over a key decision by the Housing Executive board - of which she was a member - on extending the contracts of the failed firm Red Sky.

In a telephone conversation on the eve of a key vote by the board, she claimed Mr Brimstone insisted: "You do what you are told. Otherwise there is no point in you being on the board."

She gave details of a private party meeting to resolve the dispute involving leader Peter Robinson and Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson, which resulted in her being offered a public apology.

After five drafts on the wording of an apology, it has still not been agreed.

The Lisburn councillor also gave Stormont's social development committee documentation relating to the draft apologies and a Department of Finance and Personnel report into the conduct of Mr Brimstone, who has challenged her account.

In her second appearance before the committee, former DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson argued there were "quite contradictory" statements and "inconsistencies" in Mrs Palmer's testimony.

She insisted she was telling the truth and said Mr Wilson had come close to trying to bully her at her previous evidence session last October. Mr Wilson said she had made no complaint at the time.

Mrs Palmer said that after long reflection "the only conclusion I can come to is the fact that I would have been used as a pawn in the game of politics, to say the sectarian card was alive at the Northern Ireland Housing Executive".

At another point she added: "Imagine your own party wanting to damage a party member's integrity."

Mrs Palmer claimed that at the private meeting with Mr Robinson it was agreed, and accepted by Mr Brimstone, that her version of events was substantially correct.

"It was on that basis that the offer of an apology to me was made," she added. "Everyone in the room agreed that, we all gave each other big hugs and we went out the door. Five drafts later, we're still fighting over that apology."

The session was briefly adjourned when Mrs Palmer became upset. Mr Brimstone, who is due to make another appearance before the inquiry, was said to have told her at the meeting that, as a Christian, he would not want to hurt or offend her.

She said at the end of the meeting it was left to her and Mr Brimstone to agree a form of words.

Every version until the most recent, and fifth, had included a statement from Mr Robinson that the only issue Mrs Palmer and Mr Brimstone discussed was Red Sky.

Her appearance yesterday followed testimony from the former Housing Executive chairman Brian Rowntree, who said Mrs Palmer had been "perturbed" following the phone call from Mr Brimstone. "I saw the distress Jenny was in; she was very traumatised by the event," he said.

Speaking at the committee last month, Mr Rowntree also confirmed that unspecified threats had forced him to leave his house for two nights at the time the board ended Red Sky's contract.

Mr Rowntree, who had been HE chairman for seven years by the time of the board decision, said he had never encountered a similar situation where a party representative had been put under pressure.

"I have been in the public sector since 1988 and I have never had this issue in my life," he said.

Background

Jenny Palmer broke a two-year silence over allegations of political interference in awarding Housing Executive contracts when she told BBC's Spotlight that DUP colleague Stephen Brimstone pressured her as an HE board member into voting to extend a contract to the building firm Red Sky. Mr Brimstone, however, challenged her version of events and they both met party leader Peter Robinson, after which Mrs Palmer was promised an apology, which has so far not materialised.

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