Corruption controversy hits Stormont
Corruption controversy hits Stormont

Sinn Fein’s Six-County Development Minister Conor Murphy has suspended his most senior civil servant under amid a controversy over the award of contracts for water supply.

Earlier this year four of Northern Ireland Water’s non-executive directors were sacked amid concerns over a lack of a public tendering process for about 28 million pounds (34 million euro) in contracts.

The permanent secretary of the Department of Regional Development, Paul Priestley, was suspended on Tuesday following a phone conversation with Mr Murphy.

In a statement, the Northern Ireland Civil Service announced: “The investigation will consider information which has just emerged.

“The suspension, in accordance with Northern Ireland Civil Service personnel procedures, is for the purpose of facilitating the investigation and is not a disciplinary penalty,” the statement read.

Unionists and the SDLP have used the matter to attack Sinn Fein’s handling of the Stormont Ministry.

“Whilst we need to establish the truth about the role of the permanent secretary, many will question how the [Department for Regional Development] Minister was able to offer defence for the permanent secretary, and in less than 24 hours make a compete U-turn,” said the DUP vice-chairwoman of the Assembly regional development committee, Michelle McIlveen.

However, Mr Murphy was defended by Sinn Fein colleague Paul Maskey, who said: “Clearly Conor Murphy has received information of a significant nature.”

“His decision that the position of the Permanent Secretary within his department was no longer tenable would not have been taken lightly. I am absolutely certain of that.

“Conor Murphy has once again acted promptly and robustly. The information he received was from Mr. Priestly himself, which presumably is why he was able to come to a speedy conclusion regarding Mr. Priestly’s position.”

There are larger fears that the Six-County administration is falling victim to a culture of corruption. Commentators have pointed to the serial allegations against DUP leader Peter Robinson, who nevertheless has remained in his post as First Minister.

Questions have also been raised over the actions of two SDLP Assembly members who had challenged the investigation into Northern Ireland Water.

Amid claims and counter-claims, Sinn Fein criticised the SDLP for what it said was an attempt to defend “those who have been called to account for their failings”.

“Are they content that contracts be awarded without tendering? Are they suggesting that the Minister should have turned a blind eye? It appears that is their position and it is one that is causing significant unease particularly with those businesses consistently denied a crack at government contracts,” Mr Leonard said.

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