Environment Minister Sammy Wilson has announced a Dublin professor's appointment to a key advisory role — months after it appeared such posts could be restricted to residents of Northern Ireland.
A row broke out last September after it was revealed a public official from the Republic was not being re-appointed to a Government countryside body.
Defending the decision, a spokesman for Mr Wilson’s department at the time said: “The minister feels people from Northern Ireland should be serving on boards relating to Northern Ireland.”
That was widely taken to mean that individuals from the Republic could be excluded from other DoE-linked bodies. However, he subsequently stated that he was only blocking “automatic” appointments of people nominated by the Dublin government.
Mr Wilson yesterday announced that Professor Gabriel Cooney from University College Dublin will be the new chair of the Historic Monuments Council, an advisory body to his department.
Prof Cooney is the head of the university’s School of Archaeology and is from the Louth area. He is one of 15 new appointments to the Historic Monuments Council, which advises the DoE on built heritage issues.
All the positions were filled through an open public competition involving an application and interview process. The controversy last September involved the department’s appointments to the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside. Patrick Warner, a divisional manager in the Republic's National Parks and Wildlife Service, was told he would not be reappointed to the body when his term ended.
Mr Wilson came under fire from SDLP and Sinn Fein politicians, with critics accusing him of pettiness and point-scoring.
He sought to defend and clarify his stance in the Assembly later that month.
Answering questions from MLAs, the minister said anyone from Great Britain and the Republic would be entitled to apply for advisory body posts through open competition processes.
Mr Wilson stated that the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside included a representative who had been nominated by the Republic’s government.
“The contentious issue appears to be whether it should be an automatic right for someone from the Irish Republic to sit on the advisory body, without going through public competition. My answer is no,” he added.
“These are Northern Ireland advisory bodies; why should people from Northern Ireland not serve on them?
“No-one will stand up in the House and say that I should treat people from the Irish Republic who apply for such posts differently than I would treat people from Northern Ireland. People from anywhere can apply, but everybody will be judged on the same basis and not on the preferential basis that was in operation before I made this decision.”