Red Sky on Spotlight, minister’s sleepless night?

The first half of tonight’s BBC NI Spotlight investigation (now available on iPlayer) looked at the history of Red Sky losing its contract with the NI Housing Executive. Examples of poor workmanship; charging for work not done, sometimes in buildings that no longer existed; and claims of the Red Sky contract being targeted for sectarian rather than business reasons.

BBC NI Spotlight logoMandy McAuley’s investigation then looked at the attempts to get the NI Housing Executive to extend Red Sky’s contract. It was known that Red Sky sought and achieved a meeting with DUP MLAs. Spotlight revealed the minutes from the meeting – though not all parties agree with the wording of those minutes. Questions were raised about whether a new company based at Red Sky’s address was trying to take over Red Sky’s old contracts and why there was a reluctance to provide details to the NIHE. Being present at a meeting discussing a potential contract could be problematic for ministers.

DUP Lisburn councillor Jenny Palmer was on the NIHE Board. She spoke on camera about a phone call she received from Stephen Brimstone – DSD Minister Nelson McCausland’s special advisor – asking her to go against the NIHE board’s decision when it next met.

Jenny Palmer’s recollection of the conversation was Stephen Brimstone saying:

We need you to do that. The party comes first. You do what you’re told.

She added: “Otherwise there’s no point in me being on the board if I wasn’t prepared to do what they ask me to do.”

Jenny Palmer claimed a conflict of interest and didn’t take part in the NIHE’s reconsideration and re-ratification of the Red Sky removal. Stephen Brimstone disputes that he put pressure on the DUP councillor and NIHE board member.

That a special advisor would put pressure on a party representative on an external body is no surprise. MLAs are asked to vote against their conscience on matters like equal marriage and abortion: sometimes policy – or political expediency – seems to trump personal integrity. However, in this instance, putting a board member in the position of asking them to reverse a vote that has already taken place feels too much too late.

Remember that the seven principles of public life that public board members have to sign up to include:

Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty, Leadership

Spotlight suggested that letters they sent to the minister asking for comment around their Red Sky investigation seemed to trigger the DSD Minister Nelson McCausland to “rush” to Assembly to give details from a report into the wider issue of NIHE maintenance contracts that had it was alleged had “sat on his desk” for months before. [The minister suggests an alternative timeline where the report was delayed inside the NIHE rather than within his department.] The minister’s statement pointed to other contractors with larger instances of overcharging backing up his claims of sectarianism.

It is clear that the DSD Minister and the NIHE chair did not have a good relationship.

Red Sky’s Pauline Gazzard alleged in a letter to the Red Sky administrators that Red Sky were making cash payments to (three) maintenance officers in NI Housing Executive. The programme noted that Pauline Gazzard had not reported this to the PSNI.

The last part of the 70 minute Spotlight episode examined the linkage between Turkington Holdings Ltd and the DUP, and the NIHE’s double glazing programme. Whether representatives of Turkingtons were representing their own company or were instead representing the Glass and Glazing Federation when they met with Nelson McCausland is disputed by the minister, Turkingtons and NIHE.

Despite correspondence from a solicitor – understood to have been supplied by the DUP – saying that Jenny Palmer was not clear which of her remarks were on or off the record, the programme said that the councillor confirmed she was happy with her statements and subsequently gave another taped interview to Mandy McAuley.

The programme ended with a round-up of responses from people mentioned throughout the programme, many (including the DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson) threatening legal action if allegations were broadcast.

The Spotlight investigation leaves NIHE with questions around the allegations that some staff took bribes from Red Sky. The PSNI must surely now investigate. The former non-executive NIHE chair was featured throughout the programme, but very little mention – if any – of the former and current chief executives of the NIHE and their day to day role and actions in managing or overseeing maintenance contracts.

Any report into allegations that the Ministerial Code has been broken will take months to resolve.

In the meantime, the DSD committee has an important role in holding the minister to account and the committee’s members must surely take the earliest opportunity to start their investigation into the allegations made in Wednesday evening’s programme. It only takes the signatures of 30 MLAs (or the First Minister or the deputy First Minister) to ask the Speaker to recall the Assembly to discuss a specific matter.

The big political question is whether Nelson McCausland will stand over his statements to the Assembly over NIHE, and whether the DUP can clearly explain their relationship with Turkington Holdings Ltd, and whether the party and the minister are willing to stand over the pressure Nelson’s special advisor Stephen Brimstone is alleged to have put on a DUP councillor.

With the revolving door in the Finance minister’s office expected to rotate over the summer to replace Sammy Wilson with Simon Hamilton, will the DUP take the opportunity to remove Nelson McCausland from the Red Sky firestorm?

In a statement calling for the resignation of the DSD Minister and his SPAD, Jim Allister linked the themes of the Spotlight programme to the recent planning debate and amendments:

Coming on the heels of the DUP’s power grab of planning powers, this programme revealed further disturbing evidence of the party’s unhealthy links with particular business interests.

The episode of Spotlight is now available on iPlayer. Bearing in mind how careful the Spotlight narration was in pointing out what was fact, what was disputed, what could reasonably be implied and the potential legal challenges, be careful with your comments under this post.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.