Sue Gray is investigating alleged Covid-rule breaking by government staff in lockdown
Sue Gray has been tasked with investigating alleged Covid rule-breaking by government staff over alcohol-fuelled events held during the first lockdown.
The Belfast Telegraph can also reveal that when Ms Gray left Stormont last year in the middle of the Covid lockdown, she strictly adhered to the rules and did not have a farewell party.
A source said she sent out an email to senior colleagues to say goodbye, wishing them well and explaining that due to the restrictions, she could not mark her departure socially. They said: “She didn’t have a leaving do, that is true.”
Friends of Ms Gray say she is unlikely to hold any fears about taking on the Prime Minister and other senior figures, given that she stood up to armed republican terrorists in the past.
They revealed that when she was running a pub in Newry, Co Down during the Troubles in the 1980s, she was not frightened when confronted with what was a potentially life-threatening situation. They explained: “She said that one night she had a very heavy cold and one of her staff wanted to get off early and she closed the bar down.
“She drove the person home — the person lived out in south Armagh — and she was coming back in the Camlough Road after having dropped her staff member off.
“And she came across a light in the middle of the road, and they ordered her to stop. She thought initially it was the Army, but she had a heavy cold and she was in bad form and she didn’t realise the guy was a paramilitary.
‘Then he said to her, ‘We want the car, get out.’ And she just bluntly refused and said, ‘No.’
‘Taken aback, he said, ‘What?’ And then he turned round and said to her, ‘Oh, you’re f***ing English as well?’
“And just as the situation looked like it was set to escalate, a voice came out of the darkness and said, ‘That’s Sue Gray from The Cove, let her go on.’
“So she was allowed to go on through keeping her car. And about two or three nights later she was in the bar and she was serving at the weekend and a well-dressed man was at the bottom of the bar talking with people, before nodding at her and saying, ‘Sue, did you get home alright the other night?’”
The pub has long since closed down and is now a car dealer’s.
The source told how no-nonsense Sue ran the pub with an iron fist like a ‘Peggy Mitchell-style landlady’.
Her husband Bill Conlon is a well known country and western singer from Portaferry, Co Down.
Her friend said that they believed her experience of running the pub and living in Newry stood Ms Gray in good stead for her previous role as Stormont’s top civil servant in the Department of Finance from 2018 until last year.
They explained: “She ran the show and she had a certain charm but she also would not suffer fools gladly. You knew who the boss was alright.
“But for a person who came to Northern Ireland, she had a better understanding of two sides and two communities and two identities, rather than the historical blindness from Westminster that the people you have to keep happy are always the unionists. She knew there were two big communities and you had to work with both.
“When I first met her I was taken aback, because I was disarmed, in that she is actually very friendly. She is a fascinating character.
“And then you have to kick yourself and think, ‘Hold on a minute, this woman is head of ethics and propriety in the Cabinet Office, she’s as tough as old boots. And she is. She’s very focused and very by the book, and I think that’s what people are going to find out.”
A Stormont mandarin who worked in the Assembly at the same time Ms Gray was in Belfast said she was not afraid to ruffle feathers inside the corridors of power.
They said: “She very much saw herself as a constructive challenger and that was something that received a range of responses internally and externally.“