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Accountability lacking in Northern Ireland politics, says report

By David Gordon

Northern Ireland should stop lagging behind on accountability and standards in politics.

That's the clear message from the watchdog Committee on Standards in Public Life.

The UK-wide ethic watchdog made a number of pointed Northern Ireland-related comments in its annual report for 2009/10.

These dealt with Ministerial and local government conduct as well as transparency on Assembly expenses.

The report referred to the controversy over the response of First Minister Peter Robinson to the sex and money scandal surrounding his MP wife Iris.

A BBC Spotlight programme alleged Mr Robinson breached the Ministerial Code by not reporting his wife's receipt of £50,000 from two property developers. This money was used for the café business of Mrs Robinson's teenage lover.

A confidential report by a Government lawyer rejected the Ministerial Code accusation against Mr Robinson.

The chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life Sir Christopher Kelly was criticised by the DUP First Minister, after saying that the lawyer's opinion should be published. In its annual report, the watchdog Committee returned to the subject, stating: “The standards framework for the Northern Ireland Assembly and for Northern Ireland ministers differs in a number of respects from that in the Westminster Parliament.

“In particular, in Westminster there is an independent adviser who can be asked to investigate any alleged breaches of the Ministerial Code. There is no equivalent established procedure in Northern Ireland.

“When the First Minister there was recently alleged to have broken the Northern Ireland Executive Ministerial Code, the Finance Minister in the Executive established a one-off arrangement under which a Government lawyer was asked for a legal opinion.” The report continued that “we remain of the view that the Northern Ireland Executive should establish a formal mechanism for the independent investigation of any future alleged breaches of the Ministerial Code and that the reports of any such investigations should be made publicly available”.

It also said the arrangements for MLAs’ expenses “still fall short of those in other UK legislatures in terms of openness”.

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