Belfast Telegraph

Red Sky debacle sets the clock back 40 years

The DUP's cynical 'petition of concern' over Red Sky shows the party intends the crisis to join all its predecessors – in the long grass. Robin Wilson reports

The Red Sky episode is a flashing red warning light that something is very rotten in the mini-state that is Northern Ireland.

It encapsulates a toxic cocktail of conservatism, clientelism and corruption which, if not addressed, will further discredit the pursuit of democratic politics as the public service it should be.

Yet those implicated at Stormont first attempted to suppress the story and then, yesterday, stamped on the criticism. Central to that story was grossly sexist behaviour which symbolised the male-dominated conservatism of Northern Ireland politics.

A female, elected councillor was told by a young, male DUP apparatchik that, "the party comes first" when she was meant (via the Housing Council) to be representing the wider public interest on the Housing Executive board.

But, then, what on earth would the public interest mean to a party which consists only of Protestants (as, almost universally, with its mirror image, Catholic Sinn Fein)?

What would political power be for other than the promotion of the interests of particular Protestants, and in particular the most powerful of them? The DUP minister for social development, Nelson McCausland, was witheringly described in the aftermath of last Thursday's excoriating Spotlight programme by a senior Stormont civil servant.

There was a public perception that politicians were "10th grade," he confided, but Mr McCausland would struggle to make that level.

One hears this weary reaction from the officials whose job it is to uphold the public interest, only to be overridden by politicians who think of themselves as nothing other than sectarian tribunes.

The minister evidently believes that Red Sky was singled out by the Executive because it was a 'Protestant' firm – not because of the egregious over-charging in which it serially indulged. Neither Mr McCausland nor, even more seriously, First Minister Peter Robinson, appeared to see anything wrong with promoting the interests of that firm against its competitors.

Nor, bizarrely, with holding a secret meeting with the company while in administration – exploring how a new company with remarkably similar senior personnel might take over the Housing Executive contracts from which Red Sky had been removed.

It emerged in the Giant's Causeway visitors' centre debacle that the preferred developer, Seymour Sweeney, was a DUP supporter and Spotlight also revealed that a glazing firm owned by another DUP supporter had been involved in discussions with Mr McCausland, associated with the termination of Housing Executive double-glazing work on which that firm had not been engaged.

Devolution has meant that Northern Ireland has escaped into a Bermuda Triangle, where democratic accountability is meaningless. It is the only region of the UK where party donors can retain anonymity, under the spurious claim that they might be intimidated – an invitation to corruption. It has been prevented – by DUP finance minister Sammy Wilson – from adopting libel legislation as in England and Wales, enhancing the capacity of the media, on behalf of the public, to challenge the rich and powerful. The flurry of libel actions threatened against the BBC from DUP sources, up to and including the party leader Mr Robinson, make plain why that party has no sympathy with such public exposure. In any normal, democratic society, after Red Sky a very red-faced Mr McCausland, at least, would have resigned. But, courtesy of the baroque political architecture conferred on us by the Belfast and St Andrews agreements, Northern Ireland is not yet recognisably normal. With an all-inclusive Government and no Opposition, Assembly committees cannot be effective in calling ministers to account. Mr McCausland was given an embarrassingly easy ride by the committee for social development last Friday. And, yesterday, faced with a critical motion in the recalled Assembly, his party resorted to the arrangement to test 'cross-community support' – naively demanded by the SDLP at the 1998 talks, foolishly thinking it would provide Catholics with a political veto – to block any real debate on the Red Sky affair. In the Assembly yesterday, TUV leader Jim Allister told the DUP: ''Have you no shame that you would use your position in office, abuse it, to oppress your own member?''

The untold story is that social housing is atrophying. Sales of NIHE homes since privatisation and cuts to the Executive's budget have meant fewer decent homes for the needy. And, instead of the Executive having a direct-labour, maintenance organisation, accountable to public authorities, it has found itself at the mercy of contractors like the virtual monopoly that Red Sky became – a relationship, Spotlight alleged unchallenged, lubricated by unaccounted-for payments.

And, yet, the minister intends to dismantle the Executive, rolling back that four-decades-old victory of the civil rights movement against the old unionist order.

The new one looks dispiritingly similar.

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