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MLAs and Stormont's top two at loggerheads

BY NOEL MCADAM

The head of the Civil Service has been dragged into a deepening row between Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness and the Stormont committee which monitors their office.

Civil Service chief Dr Malcolm McKibben has met with the chair of the scrutiny committee, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, as relations between MLAs and officials representing the First Minister and Deputy First Minister deteriorate.

It is believed to be the first time the province's most senior civil servant has been asked to intervene in a dispute between MLAs and ministers.

Angry committee members have complained that on 17 occasions papers which were due to be discussed were late arriving – sometimes by days.

Then a further 17 times, either the First Ministers or Civil Service officials failed to turn up for scheduled meetings.

On four more occasions, policies were announced without prior consultation – including child poverty and the 'good relations' initiative.

"And that is just since last summer," said a committee spokesman.

"We only decided to keep a formal record since then.

"The problem goes back several years but, despite attempts to address it, nothing is even close to being resolved.

"Some would see this as evidence of the dysfunctional nature of the department headed by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, but there is also a certain arrogance in the way officials have handled this whole thing – and some degree of incompetence."

Mr Nesbitt said: "Dr McKibben gave an undertaking that he will speak to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister."

However, it was pointed out that the weekly meetings of the five main party leaders – also including the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell and Alliance leader David Ford – on the Haass proposals over flags, parades and dealing with the past have meant some meetings with Dr McKibben being cancelled.

There was no immediate reply from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister yesterday – including a media request for a response from Mr McKibben.

However, it is almost a year since the committee wrote about the issue to senior civil servants and it was told at the time that they would review their processes "to try to keep these instances to a minimum".

A committee of all the chairpersons of the Stormont committees may also become involved in the issue.

STORY SO FAR

For more than two years there have been growing tensions between officials of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister's Office and the Stormont committee which monitors it. Meetings and briefings have been cancelled, often at short notice, and papers have often been late.

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