The Six-County assembly at Stormont will be recalled from the summer recess on Monday morning after a DUP councillor made serious allegations of political interference against her own party’s minister, Nelson McCausland -- but the DUP appear to have successfully suppressed any debate by issuing a ‘petition of concern’.
Minister McCausland’s special adviser Stephen Brimstone, is accused of bringing pressure to bear on DUP councillor and housing Executive board member Jenny Palmer to facilitate business dealings involving a company known as ‘Red Sky’. The firm is located in loyalist east Belfast, and in the constituency which was once the stronghold of DUP leader Peter Robinson.
The Lisburn councillor-turned-whistleblower says she was told to ‘put party interests first’ by voting in favour of a request from Mr McCausland to extend Red Sky’s previously cancelled contract with the Six-County Housing Executive. The contract had been cancelled due to a series of alleged failures and fraudulent claims.
With tears in her eyes, Councillor Palmer said that he told her that “he needed me to basically go against the decision of the board on the extension of the contract for Red Sky.”
I said to him: I don’t think I can do that.” She added: “He said: The party comes first - you do what you’re told, otherwise there is no point in [you] being on the board, if I wasn’t prepared to do what they asked me to do.”
The DUP, clearly embarrassed by the revelations, have broken new territory at Stormont by submitting a ‘petition of concern’ on Monday’s motion, suppressing any discussion of the issue. Such a petition is normally used to ensure cross-community agreement in contentious sectarian matters. The DUP’s action in this case is a new twist, as its main criticism on the issue has come from fellow unionists in the UUP, TUV and Alliance parties.
McCausland has dismissed the BBC programme in which the allegations were aired as “cobbled together”, and, with the apparent assistance of a thesaurus, characterised the programme as “speculation, insinuation and innuendo”.
Last month, McCausland raised eyebrows when he inexplicably published a sectarian breakdown of Housing Executive staff in north Belfast. The move appeared to place some employees in danger, and was later linked to a petrol bomb attack outside a workplace in Newtownabbey.
DUP leader Peter Robinson is also facing questions after he held private discussions with Red Sky management alongside Minister McCausland, after the company had already had its Stormont contract terminated. The firm and its workforce is located in his constituency.
The scandal has also raised new questions over the controversial tendering process in relation to the recent G8 summit in county Fermanagh. The two-day event cost over 80 million pounds in security and “improvement” costs, according to the DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson.
Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness said councillor Palmer’s allegations raised a “number of very serious issues” which required a police investigation.
An Ulster Unionist spokesman said that, if true, the allegations represented the “most serious case of corruption since devolution was restored in 1998”.
SDLP representative Mark H Durkan condemned the DUP’s petition of concern, and accused the party of “putting two fingers up” to other political parties and to the public.
“Maybe they have been advised, like party colleague Councillor Palmer says she was, that ‘the party must come first’,” he said.
“The DUP’s actions are an abuse of power and an affront to democracy. People will draw their own conclusions as to why any party would behave in this way.”