Murphy: “The person who has responsibility for dealing with these things is me”*

Conor Murphy’s line today on the leaked PAC report is strangely reminiscent of his party colleague, the chair of the PAC, Paul Maskey. But it is also in line with his own original interview with Jamie Delargy in UTV’s Stormy Water special back in August, that this was all about procurement issues, not the misdirection of process at the most senior levels of his own department.

The draft report of the PAC agrees the breaches were serious, but that this was due to incompetent reporting by management, not a fault of the Board as the Minister has previously (and erroneously) asserted. Sam McBride in the News Letter has some additional points from the leaked report [emphasis added]:

It found that the review which Mr Murphy used to justify their sacking was “deficient” in apportioning blame for procurement faults at NI Water and found three potential conflicts of interest between members of the review team and senior figures in DRD and NI Water.

And it reveals that NI Water has paid out more than £13 million in settlements since 2008, but sought to prevent the public learning of the “embarrassing payments” by using confidentiality clauses in the settlement contracts.

The draft report has yet to be formally agreed by the committee following its long-running investigation into NI Water, but the tenor of the Audit Office report – much of it based on the independent body’s own investigations – is unmistakably condemnatory.

Amid a host of criticisms of the Department of Regional Development, the committee said it was “appalled” that Mr Murphy’s department had entered a contract with consultancy Deloitte which attempted to place important evidence outside the reach of both the Public Accounts Committee and the Audit Office. Only a threat of legal action made Deloitte release the files requested by the committee.

It found the then NI Water boss Laurence MacKenzie’s evidence to the committee to be such that it was “not convinced by the veracity of Mr MacKenzie’s answers”.

The procurement problems at NI Water which Mr Murphy has blamed on the sacked non-executive directors were found to be serious, with “widespread abuse” of single tender awards, a large number of unapproved contract extensions and a circumvention of financial controls.

While no evidence of fraud was found, the committee said that it was never acceptable to circumvent procurement rules just to “get the job done”.

Yet the multi-million pound procurement problems were missed by consultancy PWC which awarded NI Water “exemplar” status as a “Centre of Procurement Excellence (COPE)”, something which the committee said called into question the point of the COPE process.

By way of reference, this is not the first time the misdirection of process by his most senior officials has been raised publicly. In the Stormy Water he was given an exclusive and lengthy 12 minute interview to respond to detailed questions from Delargy:

Jamie Delargy – I know you do not want to go into emails and all the communications but did you know that Paul Priestly was submitting actual wording to be incorporated in the IRT report?

Minister Murphy – I am not aware of whatever exchanges there were. I asked the IRT people, before I received their report were they satisfied that it was independent. That it was their work and that it was evidenced based and that they can stand over it and they told me yes and I accept that assurance from them.

Jamie Delargy – Do you know what was going on behind your back?

Minister Murphy – There was nothing going on behind my back.

Jamie Delargy – How do you know?

Minister Murphy – Let me say to you Jamie. The evidence was brought to my attention of wrong doing and I asked for that to be investigated. The IRT was put in place and investigated that. I spoke to them before they handed over the report to me to satisfy myself of the conduct of their inquiry and they did that. I then received their evidence and spoke to the chairman of NI Water at the time Chris Mellor. I then spoke to him and the other three directors and asked them for their view on the report and then I took my action. I am satisfied that it was the correct course of action.

Either the Minister genuinely did not now what was going on behind his back or he was deliberately misleading Delargy. Either way, within 48 hours his own Permanent Secretary had been suspended from duty for trying to interfere with the functioning of the PAC.

The problem the Minister now faces is that the PAC’s draft report utterly contradicts this position. The reports most significant concerns centre on the quality and the supposed independence of the official reporting. That leaves the Minster’s audacious sacking of the four NEDs looking precipitive and reckless.

In the last few days the Minister’s party has been kicking up smoke around Alex Attwood and the Housing Executive’s mishandling of the Christmas crisis, and we’ve even witnessed John O’Dowd calling for the resignation of the Health Minister for, well, it’s not really clear what for, other than missing an Executive meeting and, erm, having different politics from him.

But as we’ve previously noted, it all depends on who is occuying the Ministerial hot seat as to whether such calls are deemed legitimate or opportunistic. Nice attempt at spin lads.

The truth is if the Minister had not replaced an industry competent Board with an inexperienced one that supported his own political agenda, he might not have been so transparently holding the brown end of the stick when the distress signals went up over Christmas.

*This quote is from the Minister in interview with Jamie Delargy speaking about matters pertaining to the sacking of the four NEDs in August.

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