Nelson McCausland under fire as watchdog says MLAs were deliberately misled
Assembly parties have united to denounce DUP Minister Nelson McCausland after a Stormont watchdog found he deliberately misled MLAs.
On the first day of the new Assembly session, Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionists, the SDLP, Alliance, Traditional Unionist Voice and the Greens combined to censure the Social Development Minister over his insistence a meeting with a County Armagh firm which had donated to his party had instead been with the Glazing Federation.
However, the DUP – as expected – tabled a 'petition of concern' which meant that any vote even to 'note' the report of the scrutiny committee was nullified because it would not achieve a majority of both nationalists and unionists.
The Social Development Committee heard the minister's former Private Secretary, Ms Barbara McConaghie, amended minutes of a meeting with the firm Turkingtons, changing it to "Representatives of the Glass and Glazing Federation", as well as the minister's diary.
The meeting was over contracts for double glazing.
Alex Maskey, chair of the committee, yesterday argued that far from being a "witch hunt" –as the DUP claimed – the weight of the evidence meant there could be no other conclusion.
He said no one disputed the right of the minister to hold the meeting but he had a duty to be open and transparent.
Mr McCausland's assertion that he genuinely believed he was meeting with representatives of the federation was belied by the original letter asking for the meeting coming from Turkingtons and internal Department correspondence also naming them directly.
The South Belfast MLA also hit out at the "initial almost obstructionist approach" by the Department which delayed the first phase of the inquiry.
The DUP's Sammy Wilson, a member of the committee, argued however, the inquiry had not been a gathering of evidence but an opportunity to express already-existing prejudices.
"It was a political show trial... we quite rightly put down a petition of concern because it is a witch-hunt and we are not going to allow a minister who is guilty of nothing to be publicly pilloried by a bunch of poisonous political predators," the East Antrim MP added.
Dolores Kelly of the SDLP said there had been a circling of the wagons around Mr McCausland including an "unprincipled defence" by Mr Wilson.
"In no other jurisdiction, would a minister found guilty of misleading his committee still be in his position," the Upper Bann MLA added.
Ulster Unionist Michael Copeland said that he had been driven to the inescapable conclusion that the minister was "guilty as charged" but that the issue had descended into a ping-pong match with the mis-use of the petition.
"We are teetering on the edge of turning the principles of democracy on their head," the East Belfast MLA added.
Assembly 'Petitions of Concern' can be triggered by any combination of parties who can muster 30 votes between them. It means any decision reached has to have a majority from both unionists and nationalists. But the only party with sufficient Assembly numbers to ensure it can block any measure it does not like is the DUP, which has 38 MLAs.