As this Belfast Telegraph opinion piece says, “nobody should be in any doubt that the fundamental problem is Mr Hain’s cavalier approach to the appointments procedure”. Now that Don MacKay has acknowledged that he may have been “a wee bit politically naive”, it’s worth looking back at what the Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland has said as this particular mess unravelled – especially when he claims that he “made all of the appointments to the Parades Commission in good faith and to introduce fresh thinking.”As the Belfast Telegraph notes -
Now the cat is out of the bag and major questions are being asked about the NIO’s vetting procedures – or lack of them. The buck, in this case, must stop with the Secretary of State who has presided over the whole sorry situation.
Peter Hain says he made all the appointments in good faith and in a bid to introduce fresh thinking, but these procedural blunders have undermined the credibility of a new Parades Commission which was beginning to find its feet.
Surely the fact that Mr Mackay, a DUP member, had nominated Dolores Kelly from the SDLP as a referee should have raised questions at Stormont Castle. It beggars belief that nobody at the NIO thought to lift the phone and run a check with Mrs Kelly.
To begin with there is his statement when the Parades Commission appointees were announced -
“These appointments bring a completely new dynamic to the Parades Commission. The membership represents the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland. They come from a variety of backgrounds, with a broad skills mix and, for the first time, a gender balance.
“I am particularly pleased that two people with personal understanding and experience of the Orange Order and the cultural importance of parades have been appointed to the Commission.”
When the issue of the references which were not references was first raised, the NIO, on the Secretary of State’s behalf, issued a brief statement -
“Appointments were made on the basis of the candidates successfully displaying competence across a range of areas.
“References were not sought for any of the candidates.[emphasis added]
“The appointments process was regulated by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments and an OCPA representative was involved in every stage.”
And on February 28th the details of Peter Hain’s personal response to the references issue was made public, from a letter to the SDLP’s Dolores Kelly -
“As you know, all appointments to the Parades Commission were made by me, taking into account the range of skills and experience that each member would bring to the commission.
“You asked specifically about Mr MacKay’s appointment and I understand that he has now written to you to explain his personal position in including you as a referee.
“I hope that this has now provided you with clarification.”
At this point Peter Hain would have been completely aware of the problem with the references, and as I said at the time [remember, this was over 2 months ago] -
Those facts should, at the very least call into question the judgement of the Don MacKay, and should also call into question the procedures for appointments to such public bodies. Additionally, given the latest statements from Peter Hain, the facts that we’re aware of should also call into question the judgement of the Secretary of State.. who now appears to believe it’s a matter bewteen the two individuals concerned and nothing more than that.
That was Peter Hain’s position when the only reference being questioned belonged to the SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly. But it was when the reference from the DUP MP David Simpson was publicly challenged that the situation changed. Because without the, at least implicit, support from the DUP, Don MacKay was completely isolated. It goes some way to explaining Peter Hain’s reference to the appointments being made in good faith -
“I made all of the appointments to the Parades Commission in good faith and to introduce fresh thinking.”
But the “in good faith” can only be interpreted as implying that he accepted both references as valid to begin with.. which the public statements contradict – in fact, the earlier claim is that they were neither specifically asked for, nor checked, because they were not part of the considerations for the appointments.
And, if it took the denial of the reference from the DUP MP to force the resignation, the whole mess says a lot about how the Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland views the SDLP.. as well as the Parades Commission itself.