NI Water: “No, I do not believe that there was a conflict of interest.”

Slugger understands that there is growing unease amongst members of Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee with Peter Dixon’s unprecedented attack on the Committee’s line of inquiry, and the apparent silence on the matter from their own chair, Paul Maskey.  This passage from Hansard is illustrative of the line which drew fire from the Phoenix Gas CEO:

Ms Purvis: On the back of that, Chairperson, I raised the point with the regulator last week that Peter Dixon was to head up the independent review team. What is the nature of Mr MacKenzie’s relationship with Mr Dixon, given that they were exchanging e-mails and that Peter Dixon then appears on the independent review team?

Mr MacKenzie: Peter Dixon and I were both chief executives of utilities. We have a relationship, we have common interests and we are regulated by the same regulator. He is a business acquaintance of mine; no more than that. I do not socialise with Peter Dixon. I think that I have met him for coffee three or four times since I took up the post, but I do not socialise with him or anything like that.

Ms Purvis: Did the permanent secretary not see a conflict of interest in that?

Mr Priestly: I did not consult Laurence or anyone else on the appointment of the independent review team. Lian and I did it, and we did it very quickly. Laurence informed me about these things on 18 January, and an independent review team was launched on 20 January. My desire was to get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible.

Ms Purvis: Did you not see any conflict of interest in that?

Mr Priestly: I know many people in the business community in Northern Ireland, and I have known Peter Dixon as a business contact for a couple of years. This is a very small place, so it is inevitable that people will know each other. The judgement to make is whether these people are professional and have high integrity and whether they undertook an evidence-based review. I think that the answer to the last question is yes — the review was evidence based. They reached their conclusions on the basis of evidence.

Ms Purvis: That was not the question that I asked. I asked whether you thought that there was a conflict of interest.

Mr Priestly: No, I do not believe that there was a conflict of interest.

Mr Dallat: You were both chief executives. That is very formal. Another e-mail reads:

“Peter

How would you be fixed for a ‘catch up’ next week? Lots going on!…

Would work for me. I need help from friends at the minute. Hope things are fine with you now.”

That is not a formal letter between two chief executives. I have several more e-mails here that clearly state that you and Peter Dixon are chums.

Mr MacKenzie: He is a business acquaintance.

Mr Dallat: It is all here.

The responses from both men raise important questions of just how independent the Independent Review Team actually was, not least that when pressed several times the Permanent Secretary apparently sees no conflict of interest here.

We are currently trying to obtain copies of the two earlier drafts of the report dated the 15th and the 18th February to see what, if any, substantial changes were made to the report after consultation with Mr Priestly’s DRD officials.

In the meantime it is actually very rare, even in Westminster, for a parliamentary committee to gain the kind of inside track we’re seeing here. Civil Servants generally exercise complete command over their own jealously guarded executive structures.

Yet despite apparently tipping that executive machine over sideways, we still only have suspicions – and no substantial evidence – of wrong doing or misdirected process.

Much depends on what happens next. Some of the more troubling aspects of this story may be resolved by the judicious setting of FoI requests from journalists or other members of the public. But the Public Accounts Committee may never get a better chance to lay down a marker for public servants tempted to sell them short in the manner Mr MacKenzie clearly has above.

As member of the same party as the Minister, PAC chair Paul Maskey may feel some natural reluctance to press the committee’s case as hard as he might otherwise feel inclined. And his party will no doubt come under external pressure from some of the parties involved. But he’s not the first Stormont MLA to find himself in that position.

He should try to seize to the initiative and lead his committee’s charge from the front. Any embarrassment (and we don’t believe it would be anything more than that) caused the Minister should come second to ‘doing the right thing’.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty