British Direct Ruler Peter Hain has been disgraced after a High Court judge called for an inquiry into the biased appointment of a victims’ commissioner and an attempt to cover up the real nature of the appointment by British civil servants.
In what was widely seen as a ‘sop’ to Paisleyism, Hain handed the post to the widow of an RUC policeman.
Justice Girvan found that the appointment had indeed been motivated by an improper political purpose - a so-called ‘confidence-building gesture’ to Ian Paisley’s DUP.
In a damning criticism, Girvan said that the manner in which Hain and top civil servants handled the appointment raised “very serious issues which should be the subject of immediate and searching inquiry at a high level”.
He said Mr Hain had failed to take account of the fact that there was no basis to conclude that the appointment would command cross-community support.
The judge said her appointment breached accepted merit norms.
He pointed to “evasive and misleading” correspondence by civil service boss Nigel Hamilton that had put “a spin” on the true situation.
Hain had “read and sanctioned” the affidavit in a blatant attempt to mislead the court.
False information had also been sent out in a letter under the Freedom of Information Act. The judge said he asked the British government how this had occurred, but they had not responded.
The judge upheld an application for a judicial review challenging Mrs McDougall’s appointment to the #50,000-a-year interim post.
Mr Hain was ordered to pay costs estimated at more than #100,000.
The case was brought by a west Belfast woman, Brenda Downes, whose husband John was killed by an RUC plastic bullet in 1984.
Mrs Downes said outside the court: “Right has overcome might. Justice has prevailed. Today is a victory for justice.”
The judge said civil servants had avoided answering the question of how Mrs McDougall had come to be aware of the vacancy and they had given a wholly misleading impression that senior officials had put her name on the list and that no consultation had taken place with the DUP.
“The reality is that the secretary of state did consult the DUP. The secretary of state did in fact invite them twice to informally propose a particular individual whom he would consider,” he said.
“The impression that the appointee was the best candidate on merit was false as further written submission lodged on behalf of the secretary of state frankly conceded.”
The judge sharply criticised civil servants advising Mr Hain.
“The relevant government departments initially provided partial, misleading and incorrect information as to the manner of the appointment - failing to disclose the true nature of the limited consultation which took place with one political party (the DUP); implying that no consultation took place when it had; and giving the false impression that the appointment was made on the basis that the appointee was the best candidate in terms of merit when in fact the ordinary principles applicable to an appointment solely on merit were disregarded,” Mr Justice Girvan said.
Solicitor Paul Pierce, who acted for Mrs Downes, said: “The judge has clearly acknowledged that the evidence presented throughout the proceedings had the effect of misleading the court.”
Mark Thompson of the campaign group Relatives for Justice said: “This judgment gives the ownership of the whole process back to the victims and away from the improper manner in which the government and the Secretary of State handled it.
“We welcome the judge’s call for an immediate and high-level inquiry.”
Sinn Féin spokesman Philip McGuigan said: “If victims of the conflict are to have confidence in a victims commissioner then people have to be confident that their appointment was free from political intervention and not part of some wider game being played by the NIO.”
* A nationalist resident has been granted leave to appeal to the House of Lords in another controversial case centring on appointments made by the British Direct Ruler.
Joe Duffy -- a resident of the Garvaghy Road in Portadown, County Armagh, the site of numerous conflicts over anti-Catholic parades -- took legal action against Peter Hain’s decision to appoint the Orangemen Donald MacKay and David Burrows to the Parades Commission in November 2005. The Commission is mandated to adjudicate on controversial parade routes.
It is the latest twist in a long-running legal battle over the two appointments, also seen as a concession to the DUP.
Breandan Mac Cionnaith, a spokesman for the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition, said: “We are obviously delighted that the case is not dead and buried as Peter Hain and the Parades Commission would like.
“There was an expectation by the Secretary of State and Parades Commission that the House of Lords would not have granted leave to appeal, that they would not have overruled the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland, including the Lord Chief Justice.
“They clearly believe there is an answerable case.”