Belfast Telegraph

Row continues over NI Water inquiry

Northern Ireland's main political parties are at loggerheads over a Government scandal that has forced the suspension of a top civil servant.

Controversy surrounding an inquiry into Government-owned Northern Ireland Water (NIW) escalated when Sinn Fein Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy signalled his loss of confidence in his department's Permanent Secretary, Paul Priestly, over the affair.

But while a scrutiny committee at Stormont was prepared to reserve judgment on the minister's role until it meets him, the Democratic Unionist Party's Finance Minister Sammy Wilson attacked his government partner.

An independent probe found NIW issued £28.5 million in contracts without properly tendering the work. And while Mr Murphy then sacked four board members, there have been subsequent allegations that Mr Priestly mishandled the independent inquiry.

The Assembly's powerful Public Accounts Committee (PAC) began an investigation into the issues. A member of the independent review team, Phoenix Gas chief executive Peter Dixon, who faced tough questioning from PAC members, subsequently wrote a letter of complaint. And while that letter was later withdrawn, it has been claimed he received advice on writing it from Mr Priestly. Emails allegedly written by Mr Priestly are now under scrutiny.

The senior civil servant has been suspended pending an investigation, but Mr Wilson asked if Mr Priestly was being made a scapegoat.

"This is a classic ploy, where you know that there is going to be some heat brought down because of a particular action, you try and find someone to act as a conduit for that," Mr Wilson said. "On the surface of it, the minister has got similar questions to answer as the permanent secretary has got to answer."

On Tuesday, Mr Murphy said he had received information which made Mr Priestly's position "no longer tenable". It was subsequently announced by head of the Northern Ireland civil service Bruce Robinson that Mr Priestly was to be suspended.

Sinn Fein's Billy Leonard criticised the intervention of Mr Wilson. He said Mr Murphy was tackling a culture at NIW in which public contracts were not properly tendered.

Mr Leonard also said the minister behaved correctly over Mr Priestly's suspension: "There is no issue of scapegoating. The minister is interested in having fair play at all levels... the question of scapegoating is good for a headline, but has no substance."

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