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No more hugs and handshakes as DUP 'family' threatens to implode

By Noel McAdam

There were hugs and handshakes the day Jenny Palmer met Peter Robinson to try to sort out the long-running public row involving senior party adviser Stephen Brimstone.

Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson was also present at the meeting at which Mrs Palmer was promised a public apology.

But now the hugs and handshakes have gone - to be replaced by the cold formality of a disciplinary hearing which could result in the Lisburn councillor being expelled.

This is an episode that has already proved damaging to the DUP - one of its most experienced councillors claiming she was told "the party comes first" -which could still further implode on the leadership.

But Mr Robinson runs a tight ship when it comes to discipline and wants to send a clear message.

Party officers appear to believe Mrs Palmer crossed a line in her last appearance before the Stormont committee which is investigating claims in a BBC Spotlight investigation of political interference in the running of the Housing Executive. Mrs Palmer gave the committee copies of party documentation, including five drafts of the proferred apology.

Mrs Palmer first broke a two-year silence when she told Spotlight about a phone call from Mr Brimstone in which she says he pressurised her over a vote to be taken the next day by the Housing Executive board on extending contracts to the controversial firm Red Sky.

The saga stretches back almost four years to April 2011 when the Housing Executive terminated its contracts with the firm, amid allegations of widespread overcharging. Red Sky later went into voluntary administration but there were allegations the DUP tried to show favouritism.

For his part, Mr Brimstone says he does not believe he would have used the phrases that the "party comes first - you do what you are told - otherwise there is no point in you being on the board".

But the committee has also heard that just after their conversation Mrs Palmer phoned the then chairman of the Housing Executive chairman, Brian Rowntree, who said in evidence: "She seemed quite perturbed (and) relayed the conversation; she was very traumatised..."

At the meeting presided over by Mr Robinson, Mrs Palmer said Mr Brimstone told her that as a Christian he would not want to offend her and it was left to her and Mr Brimstone to agree a form of words for the apology.

"Everyone agreed that, we all gave each other big hugs and we went out the door," she said. "Five drafts later we're still fighting over that apology."

Like all political parties, the DUP dislikes washing its dirty linen in public. But it is especially embarrassing for them since the DUP likes to characterise itself as a big "family". All families have rows but the test is how they deal with them.

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