BBC Spotlight and the Housing Executive – what sort of scandal? Part 2

Belfast Peace Wall (Belfast Telegraph)

Belfast Peace Wall (Belfast Telegraph)

By Belfast Plebian

Episode two commenced after the Assembly was recalled for a one-day public debate on the developing scandal on July 8th.Once more it was down to Jim Allister to make most of the running, alleging that Red Sky had carried out work on the homes and offices of DUP members and that they even had the gall to charge some of the costs to the Assembly.  He tried to arrange for a motion calling for McCausland’s to be put up for vote but was rebuffed by Sinn Fein who wanted a less severe motion to be voted on.

It was also alleged that Nelson McCausland had an improper relationship with Turkington Holdings, a Portadown based firm that specialises in windows, doors and conservatory installations. The allegation was that he had agreed to delay the ongoing work by other rival firms with a view to favouring Turkington on the grounds of cost.  Before making his suspension order it was alleged that he met with Turkington, the chair of witch is a DUP member. But the heart of the second episode came down to final the motion and vote.

The motion asked that Mr McCausland step aside while the inquiry into the matter by the DSD committee was being carried out.  It also noted that the Minister may have purposely misled both the Assembly and the committee. The motion drawn up by Sinn Fein was supported by the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Allaince  plus the Greens and the new Unionist Party NI21. The motion collapsed even though 54 members voted for it and 32 voted against. This outcome was possible due to a safeguard inserted into the Belfast Agreement known as the petition of concern. It allows any 30 members to effectively veto a motion or law they feel is discriminatory, the DUP with 38 MLAs is the only party that can do this without votes from others.   

The reaction to the petition of concern in the press was interesting because for the first time there was a feeling of genuine alarm about the Stormont settlement that had been strongly endorsed from day one of the ‘peace process’. The political analysis in ‘The Irish News’ was pessimistic; the headline banner on the day after the DUP move to block the censure motion read ‘It was a bad day for democracy.

The writer feared that the clause that was supposed to prevent sectarian majority rule was now being used to further it: ‘ Power sharing may be the concept the devolved institutions are built on but it seems power ultimately resides with the party that can consistently muster 30 signatures and lodge a petition of concern whenever it is unhappy with a particular assembly motion. The upshot is therefore not democracy but an inverted form of majoritarianism. It’s a system that leaves the majority party in a position where it can overrule the rest of the assembly even when outnumbered two-to-one.’

‘The Irish News’ editorial was a little less stark but still pessimistic, the final paragraph read ‘Many observers will have concluded that standards at Stormont have declined to a stage where basic democratic values have been largely abandoned in the interests of expediency. There will be little public confidence that the truth over Red Sky will ever be established property but it is the wider reputation of our key intuitions that is increasingly under the spotlight.’    

As for the ‘Belfast Telegraph’, their next day front page stated; ‘This was a bad day for democracy’ the three sub headings were ‘debate on Red Sky scandal ends with no action’, ‘parties in the pockets of big business-claim’and ‘Assembly rules misused by DUP to stifle debate.’ The editorial was less pessimistic making the argument that the petition of concern could be fixed: ‘Although the motion gained cross-party and cross-community support in the Assembly it was defeated by a petition of concern, a piece of political trickery which is meant to stop minorities being ridden roughshod over, which is increasingly is used by all parties if they find themselves in trouble. It is clear that thisparticular manoeuvre will have to be rethought as it is now being misused.’

The job of expressing the fears and frustrations of the small group of reformers who had hoped for a gradual transformation out of a sectarian conflict was left to Robin Wilson the one time editor of Fortnight Magazine ; ‘The Red Sky  episode is a flashing red light that something is very rotten in the mini-state that is Northern Ireland. It encapsulates a toxic cocktail of conservatism, clientelism and corruption, which, if notaddressed, will further discredit the pursuit of democratic politics as the public service it should be.’

At least Robin Wilson acknowledged in his article that the outrageous behaviour had a lot more to do with sectarian partisanship than with corruption, the last paragraph of his article stated: ‘the minister intends to dismantle the Executive, rolling back that four-decades-old victory of the civil rights movement against the old unionist order. The new one looks dispiritingly similar.’  

We should not pass by the media reaction without mentioning one other perspective on the Red Sky affair; three days after the Stormont travesty the Belfast Telegraph carried an analysis by trade union socialist Eamonn McCann, presumably to get an alternative viewpoint. The banner of his article was ‘Red Sky, red faces and the nightmare of privatisation.’

Mr McCann stated the proposition he was out to prove in his opening paragraph ‘None of the issues which brought MLAs hotfoot back to Stormont on Monday would have arisen if the repair and maintenance of public sector housing hadn’t been privatised. No privatisation, no meeting with Red Sky representatives in Nelson McCausland,s office, no Stephen Brimstone/Jenny Palmer  phone call, no dubiety about the stop-start progress of a double contract, no reason for MLAs to be recalled just days into their nine week summer holiday

Little thought is required to refute Mr McCann’s proposition, having public control over a central Housing Authority is a good thing provided at least one condition is fulfilled, namely that those in control are socialists.  If those in charge are sectarians, racists or state capitalists then if anything it is a worse arrangement than having it in many private hands.  Unfortunately those taking charge in this case are not socialists and may even be sectarian.

Comment and Explanation

We can certainly say that the Red Sky scandal represents something more than a scandal and something less than a political crisis. It is a mini crisis of the peace process, something that is hard to disguise. The first instinct of all of those in thrall to the peace process was to disguise it as a corruption scandal, a case of one party, the DUP seeking to do financial favours for the owners of a couple of small firms that happen to back the party.  The pro-agreement media was therefore content to run behind Jim Allister for he seemed to have enough inside information to make the corruption charge stick. The sectarian substance was reduced to a secondary quality

What might have come out of this allegation was a routine resignation of a wayward politician in an otherwise stable Executive. One small problem was that another DUP minister would have replaced the sacked one and we would have merely carried on from the point we had left i.e. the programme of dismantling the Housing Executive. Then the realisation dawned on some people that the minister had no intention of resigning because his party had no intention of letting little things like democratic norms get in the way of staying in charge of the big spending departments of government. The DUP standpoint was No Surrender to our critics!

The pro-agreement media began to wonder if the current political arrangements might make it impossible to address wrongdoing not only by the odd maniacal politician but entire maniacal political parties. It was kind of expected that an exposed politico would be cut loose by his own party. One step behind the fear of unaccountable financial corruption lurks of course the longer and deeper fear of sectarian competition over the spoils of government

Pro-agreement nationalist political opinion now realised that the safeguards they had long thought they had secured against bad government were not as sound as they had believed. They now had to face up to the fact that it is an anti-power sharing sectarian party they have to deal with in government and not some reformed unionist party. On the other side, the pro-agreement unionists had to confront the fact that you only need 30 votes to carry on like the DUP does when in government and Sinn Fein have 29 votes and destined to get past the magic number in the near future.

Pro-agreement unionists, who are in fact a minority within unionism, have zero confidence in Sinn Fein not doing the same thing as the DUP. Sinn Fein have been less strident about the scandal over procurement contracts than others expected; the party refused to accept an amendment to their own weak motion of censure as phrased by Jim Allistar calling for the resignation of McCausland.  Knowing what one knows about the building trade in nationalist political constituencies it is easy to conclude that they would not be too keen on a thorough going inspection and clean up themselves. They are up for an inquiry all right so all as it is confined to Red Sky.

We predict the two big political parties will continue on much as before, jockeying for position and biting into sectarian patronage and running down the public purse to no good end. The Orange Order, to give one example, is now subsidised like it wasn’t in the halcyon days of one party Orange rule; it receives money for its decorous band uniforms, to buy musical instruments, to pay for music lessons and there are more bands than ever. The local government even funds the bonfires, which used to be stuck up by nothing-to-do summer youths – now they are professional affairs put together by men using heavy machinery,  The mural painting of walls is also funded.

The Orange Order is renovating itself and building up a heritage with European Peace money to the tune of £7 million.  As for the paymaster of sectarianism in London, the real government has so far kept shtum and if things come to a breakdown they will invite in a prominent American to recommend some institutional changes probably along the line suggestion by the Belfast Telegraph i.e. make it harder for the main political parties to draw on a petition of concern to block a cross community majority vote. 

There is a mini crisis of confidence facing many of those well-educated professionals currently staffing the Public Sector. These people like to think of themselves as untouched by low-down sectarian squabbles. The Spotlight programme threw up a number of side issues that point in this direction.

It was pointed out in the programme that the first people to come under pressure was not the Housing Executive Chairman but the housing inspectors who had refused to give a pass to Red Sky’s shoddy work . The group development manager of Red Sky, one Pauline Gazzard, felt confident enough to write a letter to a senior Housing Executive manager with the expectation that the inspectors’ reports against Red Sky, put together by a conscientious district officer Gary Ballentine, an elder in the Presbyterian church, would be brushed aside: ‘It is also considered necessary to re-iterate our deep concern in relation to certain personalities who remain working in the West Belfast District Office and we trust appropriate actions will be taken to address this in the near future.’

The letter is address to a senior Housing Executive manager but was never seen by the Board or the Chairman when they were investigating the matter; the three West Belfast inspectors were in fact removed and sent elsewhere. What is abundantly clear is that senior managers at the Housing Executive were depriving the Board and the chairman of very relevant information.

The report that the chairman commissioned and delivered in 2011 discovered that 80% of the charging made by Red Sky was questionable. The upshot was that 8 managers were disciplined and some others retired early for allowing the overcharging to go on. The question to be pondered – were they in receipt of bribes or were they making a calculation that it would not be wise to rock the sectarian boat

If we next move on to the police, they have been asked three times to investigate matters pertaining to Red Sky.  Once in 2006 when several lesser Housing Executive workers were found to be taking gifts from Red Sky, no charges were preferred then.  The second time when Chairman Rowntree provided them with the evidence of criminal wrong doing in 2011, the evidence that was used to terminate the £7 million annual contract, and again the police sat on their hands.  Finally the Spotlight team asked the police were they thinking of opening up a new investigation; they replied not without evidence.

But if there was no evidence how come the Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly says that ‘ a sample of 20 kitchen replacement schemes (out of a total of 242 schemes undertaken to date) found overpayments of £1.3 million out of a total cost for all schemes examined of £6.2 million. The potential total contractor overpayment since 2008 is estimated at around £18 million’

And there was other evidence; it came from Pauline Gazzard who no longer works for Red Sky/Totalis. When the administrator took over the running of Red Sky she wrote a 13-page letter to BDO explaining that she knew for a fact that the company she formerly worked for had bribed at least three procurement officers from the Housing Executive. The Spotlight reporter said ‘We asked the police ifthey had the letter now would they act on it now-they refused to comment.’

The Spotlight reporter then asked the Housing Executive Chairman, who had been keen to have the police involved, about the seeming lethargy of the police investigation and his reply was ‘I am absolutely gobsmacked’.   Then we have the administrators at BDO; Pauline Gazzard told Spotlight that she was surprised BDO showed no interest in her letter or her allegations. Not only that, BDO did not pass the information she gave them on to the Board of the Housing Executive or the police. When asked about the matter BDO claimed client confidentially meant they could not comment.

Here’s the rub. Did one small building firm have so much sway, over senior Housing Executive managers, over the police, over accountants and insolvency professionals, over politicians and then over the Head of the Government because of its economic weight, after all it was hardly BP or Shell Oil or is there another explanation?

The other explanation is a bit crude and may even sound offensive to some ears. The firm’s managers knew how to play the sectarian playbook to make other people quake a little.  The firm was quick to blame the Catholic residents for making false complaints, and then they said the inspectors were bigots even though this was patently untrue.  They then attacked the chairman of the Housing Executive indicating he was a dodgy nationalist, then they encouraged their work force to picket the offices of the Housing Executive, carrying banners with slogans like the Housing Executive is anti-Protestant, and finally they told the DUP that the firm had done no wrong and was being starved of work contracts because it was believed to be Protestant.

All those who stepped aside for Red Sky did so because they were conscious of the sectarian clouds that sit low and heavy over society. The politics is sectarian because the society is sectarian. What is more the sectarian cloud cover is thickening rather than dispersing due to the fact that sectarian politicians are taking over the basic departments of government. As for those working under the new dispensation, things are about to get a bit more complicated and choking.

In the more recent past, if you were a public sector professional you only had to contend with a subdued sectarianism, the police and the Northern Office of course was something different, now it is back and it is naked and outspoken.  What is even more disconcerting, the really green nationalists want you to bend in their direction too, overlook this misdemeanour, override a professional service protocol when instructed to do so by somebody with political connections.  How the hell do you bend in two sectarian directions at once?  Do you decide to bend with the Orange 60 per cent of the time and then bend with the Green the other 40 per cent?

The relationship between the relatively privileged professional classes who number a fair number and the sectarian society is about to get a bit more fraught. We can see clear evidence of this emerging from this case.  McCausland decided to wage a vendetta against the Chairman of the Housing Executive, so he asked for some evidence to get at his target.  Two senior DSD civil servants accompanied him to the infamous meeting with the Red Sky management at Stormont; the minutes of that meeting read like a party political conspiracy.  Is this what civil servants should be doing?

The DSD permanent secretary is busy trying to get Brian Rowntree removed from his other public service job with the civil service commissioners’ according to Spotlight he got his staff to trawl through thousands of e-mails hoping to find incriminating evidence against Rowntree.  What a truly poisonous atmosphere.

If a government department supervised by a political Orangeman hounds a career civil servant out of his post, will a department run by a Nationalist respond in kind, if you take out one of ours we will take out one of yours?  Legal threats are flying about left, right and centre.  No wonder the Spotlight programme began by saying that many people ‘we spoke to were scared to speak on the record.’ Most of these people were of the professional class. Welcome to the future sectarian society!  Mandy McAuley the girl that kicked the hornet’s nest.

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