NI Water: All parties should back Dallat’s call for a real Inquiry

For the first time in the history of Northern Ireland and only the second time in the history of the British Civil Service a Permanent Secretary has been suspended. That’s a big story, and one Slugger has been in somewhat lonely pursuit of since seeing the BBC’s footage of the PAC interrogation of Laurence McKenzie and Paul Priestly.

Here’s the straw that broke the camel’s back with regard to Paul Priestly. According to David Gordon, “it is understood evidence emerged yesterday indicating that Mr Priestly was involved in drafting the letter.”

Which letter? That would be the one Slugger put into the public domain some six weeks ago (and which was also announced -although not published –  by the BBC) which Peter Dixon wrote threatening the PAC with legal action, on his own company’s headed note paper.

There is no question that Mr Priestly did not know the full content of the letter. Not least because he circulated a copy of the Dixon letter to his staff the day before the PAC received it.

Patsy McGlone laid out the issues arising in a letter to the Head of the NI Civil Service, Bruce Robinson (to which he has yet to receive a reply) well over a month ago:

In light of the now established fact that Mr Priestly had received and distributed this letter well before the formal addressee had even received it, it is for you to discern what exact role the Permanent Secretary for DRD fulfilled in these matters and how the public good was being served through dissemination of a letter, neither from him, nor the Department, but from a person avowedly independent of the Departmentmaking serious criticism of public representatives as they pursue their duties at the PAC. You will also be aware this letter was promptly retracted with subsequent clarification by the Chair of the company which employs Mr Dixon [emphasis added].

We sometimes berate politicians for not doing what they say they are going to do when they get into power. Yet, what chance does a Public Affairs Committee have when it is up against this kind of interference?

All through the summer Slugger has picked its way through a whole bunch of inconsistencies in this story. We still don’t believe we are at the bottom.

It will take a genuinely independent inquiry to get to the bottom of this whole little charade. One in which all witnesses are called and grilled until their pips squeek; including the sacked NEDs.

Meanwhile, Mr Dixon will have some serious explaining to do to his Board Chairman. Mr McKenzie’s radical suggestion lies in tatters…

And the sacked members of the Board must be waiting for some kind of recompense, apology for being forced off into the deep end for the sake of… Well, for what we have still to hear…

It is surely time to take advantage of the Minister’s bold (if utterly painful and belated) action and back John Dallat’s call for a fuller, more public inquiry with the forensic teeth to get to the bottom of these problems.

And not simply to apportion blame and set up more scapegoats, but to give the company a fresh start, regardless of whether it remains publicly or privately owned.

There may be an argument brewing about who scooped this story, and who didn’t. When the rush of this high profile suspension has abated, the problems identified on Slugger through the summer will have to be addressed seriously and in the kind of detail we’ve seen in the genuinely independent report on the Malahide viaduct.

If this was a scoop for us, it might be better described as Slugger’s own anti scoop scoop… More on the virtues of ‘slow journalism’ later…

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

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