Willie Clarke asks why the SDLP is ‘defending’ sacked NEDs

So whilst Northern Ireland Water is using section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act to prevent us finding out information we don’t already know (ie, whether or not Minister Murphy’s interim chair has been doing his job properly), Sinn Fein’s Willie Clarke’s going on the political offensive over NI Water, asking some questions the answers to which are already in the public domain.

In particular he’s asking why two SDLP MLAs:

“…have been fighting a rearguard action on behalf of those former directors of NI Water sacked over the procurement scandal within that company when up to £28m of contracts were allocated without going through proper procedures”.

Well, apart from the bleedin’ obvious (i.e., they’re trying to score some much needed political points for their party), someone ought to slip Willie a copy of that draft report, which reportedly sketches out in detail just why none of the material the Minister based his hasty action on can be trusted.

Indeed, you only have to look at the time line to see that the last Board were only informed of the breaches after they were being investigated by the Department’s so called Independent Review Team: a review team that proved to be anything but Independent.

Less than nine months later Mr Murphy is a Permanent Secretary and a Chief Executive down, for reasons all of which appear to have been carried on behind the Minister’s back

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    I remain unconvinced about attaching blame to Conor Murphy but whether or not he is culpable is no longer the issue. He is SEEN to be culpable and thats really all that matters.
    There are actually two Water Crises….not one. The first is interesting not so much about what Conor Murphy knew but I think the real lesson here is that notwithstanding our much praised/maligned Agreement……no minister or MLA is really in charge. They (McGimpsey,Ruane Ford etc ) go along with the advice of civil servants and the appointees appointed thru……well who exactly?
    The civil service mandarins and local appointees are part of the Cabal that really rules Norn Iron.
    The Christmas Water Crisis is actually the more important one……as it became a “people issue”. Those not really interested in the musical chairs nonsense in the Water Board will be more concerned about not having a water supply.
    While I think Conor Murphy was largely surviving the first crisis, he has floundered with the concentrated attack on him by Conall McDevitt and others since Christmas. Again …..nobody can expect him to undertake a plumbing course but these are the real issues on which people actually blame someone and Murphy is to some extent a scapegoat but a reasonable one.
    Had it been a SDLP, UUP or DUP Minister…….Sinn Féin MLAs would have been unrelenting.
    Did the musical chairs crisis have any electoral consequence? No. (Although the scandal of public appointments is actually important).
    Will the failure to supply water have an electoral consequence? Actually yes.
    If the world was fair…..the Appointments Scandal would actually be the bigger issue. But the consequence of Sinn Féin holding three Ministries (and SDLP one) is that they compare unfavourably….whether Ruane and Murphy are actually incompetent is less important ELECTORALLY than the perception that they are.
    They just have three times the scrutiny….and 2010 has shown that there are highly motivated unrelenting SDLP MLAs.
    At the end of the day Elections are about holding Governments accountable. And SF is looking increasingly uncomfortable at the scrutiny.
    It is ironic because prior to 2010, they were extremely lucky (Northern Bank for example)
    Things seem to be balancing out now.
    They look unlucky.

  • Mick Fealty

    I’d concur with this:

    “The civil service mandarins and local appointees are part of the Cabal that really rules Norn Iron.”

    Normally, a PS and a Minister/SoS are taken to be an irreducible double. There are two extraordinary aspects of this case: the Minister’s double has been for the first time in the history of the NICS singled out for disciplinary action; whilst his minister continues to defend the work his PS lost his job over.

    How does this relate to Christmas?

    Well, one answer to that may come with the disclosure of the answer to Jim Allister’s question: ie, was the new Chair as diligent during the crisis in his support of the management as his predecessor had been in last January’s cold snap?

    The other we know already. The folk the Minister chose to sack had the experience to guide a weak and inexperienced CEO through the cold weather crisis, and the Board he substantially chose did not. The Minister’s hands are all over this, even if the detail was set up by his suspended PS.

    Electorally? I haven’t a clue. I don’t see there’s that much danger in the short term. SF is the party of choice for most nationalists, and I don’t see that changing soon.

    In fact the reality may be a great more dismal than that. I’m not sure that many ordinary folk really care one way or the other. And that will be to the detriment of all political parties.

  • Absolutely FJH. The system was set up to diffuse, defract, confuse and distract, and allow the Civil Service to get on with running the show without meddlesome politicians thinking they know better. A political class with more nous might have worked this out and taken charge, but that is not what we have and the everyone in only means that they are too busy scoring points to notice that they aren’t actually scoring any successes for the people who elect them. But sure if they are not succeeding then a wee turn to the base line – Murphy on road signs, DUP UUP on unity – will bring things back to what matters. Not.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Mr Fealty……on the “real water” (ie you turn on a tap and nothing comes out) issue……we pay too much attention to the Irish News and Tweeter and not enough to the Armagh Observer, Portadown Times and Newry Whatever. Thats where the unrelenting attack on Mr Murphy has really been concentrated.
    ie All Politics is Local. Queue up for a bottle of water and its not academic. Its personal. And from what Ive seen, SDLP politicians such as Thomas O’Hanlon and Sharon Haughey in the Armagh area have been chipping away at SF on the issue.
    Effective? I dont know either……but…….Im still thinking that SF is not as “smiley faced” as previously. They are rattled. And it shows. An air of incompetence (real or hyped) and that overall feeling that their luck has run out. And oddly the generational issue……which used to work in favour of Sinn Féin……but that selection of Pat Sheehan just looks like a backward step.

    But for those of us who are too interested in Governance itself, the first crisis has an air of “Yes Minister” or “P*** Off Minister” about it.
    The Civil Service culture in say England has often been a stumbling block for “left wing” Labour politicians. They seem to react in two different ways. The Minister is over-awed by the Culture…..sucked into it…..OR the Minister is too feisty and is eventually stitched up by a vengeful civil service.
    Are we sure nothing like this would happen in the neutral NICS. There are perhaps 100 civil servants. Probably 80 actually vote ……in East Belfast, North Down, Strangford………now the mere fact that they are not fully representative of the way real voters vote should mean nothing. How many would be SF voters.
    But its hard to believe that Martin McGuinness, Gerry Kelly etc are talked about in glowing terms in the Maynard Sinclair pavillion.
    The notion that any are a double act with SF ….I just dont buy.
    Regardless…..no civil servant or their professional body rusjhed to a sacked colleagues defence and said that the Minister was in the wrong.
    In true Sir Humphrey style this does not let Minister Murphy off the hook. Rather there are some resentful people around him. I dont suppose the sacked Permenant Secretary has been black balled on the dinner party circuit or deleted from Facebook Friends Page.

    But this coterie of 100 or so people who follow Ministers around the Stormont corridors and the elegant hotel convention rooms (one of them always saying “The Minister is 10 minutes behind schedule” into a mobile phone) are a force to be reckoned with as is the top 100 public appointees to public bodies from the world of accountancy, law etc. While much is made of SF appointees …..this focus is as much to do with so few of these professionals being SF supporters.

    As Ive said……the bigger story in terms of governance is the jiggery pokery around public appointments. An Enquiry into THAT would be resisted.
    But that relationship needs to be scrutinised.
    And every potential Minister should now be aware of it.

  • “go along with the advice of civil servants and the appointees appointed thru……well who exactly?”

    fjh, Lian Patterson has given us some insight into Murphy’s ’emergency’ appointment process in a letter to the Minister:

    After drawing up a short list ‘we will provide an interim update to you at that stage and seek any preferences you may have from the names on the list’. The panel would then draw up a list of names for each of the 4 NED roles ‘You would then state your preferences or request to meet the individuals. Prior to giving your approval to proceed to offer appointments.’

    This doesn’t look like a senior civil servant controlling a Minister, rather the reverse. Ó Muilleoir was slipped in as an additional fifth NED and I’ve seen no indication that he even went through the process outlined by Patterson.

  • “coterie of 100 or so people who follow Ministers around the Stormont corridors”

    fjh, it might not work like that. A friend of a friend worked in the Department of Education when Martin McGuinness was Minister during the era of the first Executive. He picked up some papers and stepped out into the corridor to go to a meeting. He was immediately bundled back inside by one of the Minister’s minders to the accompaniment of ‘The Minister’s coming!’. I don’t recall that style being enacted in Yes Minister 🙂

  • Cynic2

    Perhaps the SDLP is defending them because their human rights seem to have been abused

  • redhugh78

    Been wanting to make this point for a while but didn’t want to seem like I had a persecution complex, but here is more evidence of the anti-SF sentiment running through Slugger.

    A mute point perhaps Mick, but why is the logo of Sinn Fein never used on Slugger (think I might have seen an old one used once) despite the constant posts involving that paricular party. Funny how it never appears on Slugger yet other parties logos do.
    You care to comment?

  • Mick Fealty

    It’s all a wee bit random as to when we use pictures and when not.

    As for why the SDLP and not the Sinn Fein logo on this occasion, it’s because whilst Willie’s opinion is the subject here, the SDLP were the object of Willie’s query.

    That’s a judgement call in my view. You may think I got it wrong. But I’d be interested in hearing why?

    As for Slugger’s anti SF sentiment, well it is as legitimate as the pro SF sentiment, surely: http://aprnonline.com/?p=80137

  • redhugh78


    ‘It’s all a wee bit random as to when we use pictures and when not.’

    Is it? if it were random then would it not be fair to say we would see the SF party logo now and again at least?

    …’As for why the SDLP and not the Sinn Fein logo on this occasion, it’s because whilst Willie’s opinion is the subject here, the SDLP were the object of Willie’s query.
    That’s a judgement call in my view. You may think I got it wrong. But I’d be interested in hearing why?’..

    You misunderstand the thrust of my query Mick, I never suggested the SF logo should have been used on this occasion.I was querying why the SF logo never seems to appear at all even when SF ‘are’ the ‘object’ (which is pretty often on Slugger).

    ‘As for Slugger’s anti SF sentiment, well it is as legitimate as the pro SF sentiment, surely: http://aprnonline.com/?p=80137

    Are you seriously comparing Sluggers anti-SF (my opinion) leanings to SF’s own web media?
    Would we not aexpect pro SF slant from SF’s own media outlet.
    Is Slugger not supposed to be a forum for political comment with some degree of a fair ‘crack of the whip’ in terms of facilitation of opinion from across the political spectrum or are you finally admiting to what I have said all along; that Slugger (yourself included Mick )reallly despises Sinn Fein? I would have said despises Republicans but that does’nt seem to be the case as Republicans who have a particular loathing of Sinn Fein seem to be ok on Slugger.

  • redhugh, there’s been pro- and anti-SF sentiment on Slugger. Chris Donnelly, for example, has often acted IMO as a SF apologist.

  • Mick Fealty


    I do care that we have a variety of views and that we have diversity of thought. But the problem is not that we have an anti republican bias, it is that we don’t have enough genuinely unionist content.

    We have Republican bloggers coming out of our ears. And when a SF politician does well, I’ll not hold back on praise for him or her (you know yourself we were on to the DSW story early and gave it plenty of light and coverage). But I am not going to shield them from legitimate criticism any more than I would any other party.

    And there is no shortage of things to criticise them for. More than once, the party has resembled that lions led by donkeys quote from WW1. More often it puts me in mind of Geoffrey’s cricketing metaphor from his resignation speech:

    “It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.”

    Judging by the feedback we get here, no other party seems to take honest criticism as badly as Sinn Fein does. I cannot speak for others of the blogging team, but in my case anti SF stories is not anti SF so much as anti poor politics.

    The party is getting better at some things (some which, we could do with highlighting more prominently), and I rate some of their backbenchers like Mitchel and John O’Dowd as some of the best in Stormont..

    But the Ministerial cock ups are really hard to ignore (honestly, look at your three portfolios and point out to me who else in the executive has created anything like the same scale of mess?

    In the end, I have more than 40 people who can blog in one capacity or another. I have made various calls for new bloggers periodically throughout Slugger’s career. If there are predominance of anti SF stories it’s because the material is out there, not because we don’t have the capacity to do pro SF stories. There’s just a lot fewer of them.

    And that’s a problem that has to be tackled at the party root, not on a blog, a paper or a radio programme.

  • observer

    It seems Willie Clarke (and possibly Sinn Fein) have a really poor grasp on reality here.

    These former directors, sacked by the Minister, appear to have been sacked on the back of a totally discredited Independent Review Team Report, masterminded by Paul Priestly and Laurence Mckenzie. Did they get a pay off to go at the time?

    Has Laurence mckenzie had some sort of pay off as he walked out the door at the end of this farce during December and January? If he did get a pay off, how much did he get and under what terms? Has Conor Murphy signed off on a pay out – surely the Minister would have to sign off on that. Perhaps he has the power to block the payoff, given the suffering of people all over the North during Christmas and New Year.

    Is Willie Clarke seriously supporting a pay off of £100,000 to Laurence Mckenzie who was already earning £250,000 a year?

    Sinn Fein put a spokesman up during the crisis who firmly said Laurence Mckenzie must not receive a penny as he resigns from his role. Did Willie forget this – or perhaps he simply does not agree with it and believes the pay out to Mckenzie is a good thing and money well earned.

    One thing is clear – Sinn Fein have got themselves all mixed up in this debacle over the discredited IRT and Willie, Conor, and all the others are running around in confused circles not sure who they should blame next.

    I cannot see Wee Willie selling the payout to Mackenzie on the doorsteps to the voters this coming Spring. Come on Willie – not even you can be that crazy – Silly Willie!

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Its simplistic to say that Slugger O’Toole is anti-Sinn Féin.
    There are two types of contributor to Slugger.
    The first is the “political partisan”. It follows that the partisan is anti-all political parties except his/her own.

    The second is the “political anorak”, interested in politics as a whole but in a sense anti-politics…and more precisely the type of politics we have in Norn Iron. As SF is the most obvious example of OUR politics, it follows that the political anorak is more hostile to SF (and possibly the DUP) than any of the others.

    So simplistic to say Slugger is anti SF…..but more than a little true.

  • Felicity Huston, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, drops a depth charge into the ‘irregular’ interim appointments process adopted by Conor Murphy:

    “Having obtained the available documentation and information from the Department my office undertook this review. Unfortunately I found myself in a position were I was unable to form a view on whether the process was compliant with the principles of my Code as the record-keeping was so sparse and had so many gaps. Therefore the only firm conclusion I can reach is that paragraph 3.31 of my Code of Practice for Ministerial Appointments – full contemporaneous records of all assessment procedures, deliberations and outcomes must be kept – has not been complied with.

    The Minister has been made aware of my findings and has acknowledged my concern admitting that the process should have been handled better. Due to my review of the process the Minister assured me that lessons have been learned and has asked his officials to ensure that such deficiencies are eliminated in future competitions.” http://goo.gl/7nPCh

  • In the circumstances, the Committee for Regional Development should call the Commissioner and get to the bottom of such flaunting of the rules.

  • IMO the Commissioner comes out of this shambles looking even worse than the miscreants. She provided an opportunity for naughtiness, failed to insert an independent monitor from her department and, when naughtiness took place, the miscreants promise not to misbehave ever ever again – and run off laughing.

  • Felicity Huston: “record-keeping was so sparse and had so many gaps”

    Could it be any more sparse than the Commissioner’s review which is tucked away in the bowels of the website and doesn’t rate a mention in the News tab? Mind you, Google managed to spot it.

  • Pigeon Toes

    ” full contemporaneous records of all assessment procedures, deliberations and outcomes must be kept – has not been complied with
    The Minister has been made aware of my findings and has acknowledged my concern admitting that the process should have been handled better. Due to my review of the process the Minister assured me that lessons have been
    learned and has asked his officials to ensure that such deficiencies are eliminated in future competitions. ”

    How many times have we heard *that* before?

  • “has asked his officials”

    The Commissioner hasn’t attributed blame yet the Minister seems keen to wave the finger. Did the Commissioner seek documentation and information from the Ministerial office as well as from the Department?

    PT, it seems that very little of our governance network is fit for purpose. It’s a small place certainly but when you see Permanent Secretaries and Watchdogs dining together twice a month at Chief Executives Forum’s dos, dos that may be funded by companies in receipt of significant amounts of taxpayers dosh, is it any wonder that things can go wrong, badly wrong. Then add to that the number of times our not very potent committees go into private session instead of availing of the input of concerned taxpayers ….

  • Pigeon Toes



    I have a couple of specific questions, which you may not be in a position to answer. It will help me in the next session, which is on the issue of non-executive directors and their dismissal. Is there a process that has to be gone through when non-executive directors are dismissed from a board, and, if so, what is that process?

    Ms Huston:

    I am not responsible for a board’s operation. My role ceases when someone is appointed, so I do not have oversight of that. In fact, no one does. I have been able to do one thing within my code of practice. Issues came up with HANI and one or two other bodies where people did not fulfil what we would have expected of them as a non-executive director. Partly because of that, I have put in place measures so that anyone who is to be reappointed to a position has to continue to comply with the principles of public life which are appropriate for this role, and has to have been in receipt of satisfactory performance assessments each year. Other than that, unfortunately, I have no role and no locus over that sort of stuff.

    Ms Purvis:

    Obviously, there is a gap in the board of Northern Ireland Water in non-executive directors. The accounting officer said that the Department has secured your agreement to enable a deviation from the normal appointments process. What is that deviation?

    Ms Huston:

    We agreed a short-term appointments process with Northern Ireland Water so that it did not have to put out a major public advertisement and could target individuals who would put themselves forward. It often happens when appointments are made to a specialist board, where you might say that there is no point in putting an advertisement in the public papers because you will not get the people. Given the difficult circumstances in which NI Water found itself and the fact that it is to be for about six months, I agreed that it could approach people, who will still have to apply, and make them aware of the appointment opportunity and the appointments situation. They will still have to apply for the appointment, and they will still have to be interviewed. It is similar to the public appointments process, but it is not publicly advertised, although I think NI Water is putting something about it on its website.

    There are no clear and fast rules about what must and must not be advertised, so the deviation is that it will be done for approximately six months, as I understand it. It is being done quite quickly, which I support because I do not think that it should take a long time, and there will not necessarily be the application forms that are often required.

    Ms Purvis:

    Will there be a full public appointments process after that?

    Ms Huston:

    Yes. The agreement was done because the board requires people to sit on it to be able to function and carry out its duties. The Minister could have gone ahead and done it anyway and it would not have been appropriate for me to say that I did not think that NI Water should have that process. The agreement was on the clear understanding that, once the board was in place and it had been able to drawn breath and do what it needed to do, a full appointments process would be run as normal.

    Ms Purvis:

    So, is the Department headhunting people for that at the moment?

    Ms Huston:

    Yes. That occurs in other situations, but it just so happens that this is a rather controversial environment. Sometimes, specialisation requires headhunting.”

    Go to comment

  • CPANI Code: “3.2 Once the Ministers have agreed the role profile, person specification and appointment timetable, they will not be actively involved in the appointment process again until assessments have been concluded and they have received the Ministerial submission”

    Yet, as I understand it, Lian Patterson was seeking the Minister’s involvement on two occasions prior to the conclusion of assessments.


    Did the Commissioner acquiesce to Patterson’s proposal?

  • redhugh78

    Stilll can’t bring yourselves to use the SF logo tho.
    Scroll up and down the different posts to see my point.

  • Hugh, I can understand why SF wouldn’t want its logo floating above an NI Water story.

  • Pigeon Toes


    The request from Lian Patterson to Huston’s office requesting this “confidential” meeting is the 3rd March 2010. A remarkably short time then for the Minister to get to grips with where culpability lay.

  • 241934 john brennan

    I freely admit to anti-SF bias. But I never wrote anything worse about the SF President, than Liam Clarke did in today’s Sunday Times – and he is a highly regarded impartial reporter.

    I think that SF’s problem is that really good writers just don’t/didn’t eulogize physical force republicanism. As our Nobel Prize poet, Seamus the Famous wrote: “Whatever you say, say nothing.” – and that unoriginal line was/is the common approach.

    Why are there so few stirring songs (a characteristic of all revolutions) about the ‘Troubles’? In “The men behind the wire”, the music is that of the hymn ‘Hail Redeem, King Divine” and the words a parody of those in the same hymn. ‘The Town I love so well’ and the song about the Claudy bomb are also memorable, but hardly pro-republican. For understandable reasons, nobody ever eulogized Bloody Friday, Darkley, La Mon, Enniskillen etc. So for one reason or another, most just follow the Heaney line and stay stuhm.

    I think the reason for this negativity, is that there is much to be negative about. I also think SF doesn’t hold up an idealist vision of the future, together with any credible plan for getting there.

  • PT, the ‘independent’ report is dated Thursday, Feb 25, the request for a meeting with the Commissioner left Patterson’s office on Wednesday, Mar 3, the Commissioner agreed to a meeting the following Thursday week, Mar 11 and on the following day the NEDs were gone.

    At the meeting with CRD on Sep 1, 2010, the Minister seems to have assumed responsibility for the approach to the Commissioner:

    “In discussion with the Commissioner for Public Appointments, we wanted to establish a process by which we could appoint interim directors, almost on an emergency basis. We discussed a process with her. It was adhered to, and a number of people were identified and spoken to, and their interest in serving as interim board members was identified. I think that “conversations with purpose” is how they are described; they were not quite formal interviews.”

    Presumably the process adhered to is the one outlined by Lian Patterson. The Minister received the report within two days so I wonder if the exchange between the Minister and Patterson (and possibly Priestley) prior to the Mar 3 email is on record.

  • Pigeon Toes

    So do you reckon that Ms Patterson was requesting to meet the Commissioner, without an idea that some of the board may have have been sacked?

  • PT, dear knows when a decision was taken that the NEDs had to go but it’s fairly clear that cover was wanted from the Commissioner. As soon as that cover was given the NEDs were gone.

    It also seems clear that there may not have been a great rush to take the vacated seats. New NEDs were to have been appointed on Apr 23. Note that Annex 2 in your link has become Annex 3 in this one http://goo.gl/althF

  • Drumlins Rock

    Nevin, do you think there would there be ground to challenge the legality of the appointment of the new NEDs by the minister?

  • I wouldn’t know about legal issues, DR, but it would appear that the process was open to abuse and that the various watchdogs had little if any bite. An additional NED was added to the Board and that NED was Máirtín Ó Muilleoir. I’ve not seen any correspondence which shows when the decision was taken to appoint an extra NED or who made it.