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.

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  • GavBelfast

    DUP threats of legal action (that old chestnut!) will have me watching with interest as soon as it is available!

  • Neil

    Fascinating stuff. Was it just me or did it seem like the knives were being sharpened on the twilight of Robinson’s leadership.

  • Mick Fealty

    Keep it clean lads, I don’t want any legal emails dropping in my inbox tomorrow…

  • Niel[12.41] Could be. Robbo’s interventions were noticable by their clear sectarian angles. His days may be numbered in that his influence may be on the slide. Nelson might be sheltered the same way Nigel is being sheltered over the Maze. Dodds has gone unchararacteristically shy these days. Could the Maze have owt to to do with it?

  • Mick Fealty (profile) 4 July 2013 at 1:08 am
    Keep it clean lads, I don’t want any legal emails dropping in my inbox tomorrow…

    Given the DUP threats of legal redress in tonights soap opera I’d be expecting an avalanche Mick

  • BluesJazz

    Mick. I libeled no-one or party.

    My opinion that direct rule was honest and cheap should be allowed to stand. Whether it was effective or unnecessary is bye the bye.

  • Mick Fealty

    You were just downright abusive…

  • bartleby

    How many more contractors and jobs will be lost and at what cost to the public purse simply to protect the Minister’s vanity?

  • Granni Trixie

    Well done Spotlight but what strange timing – on the cusp of the Assembly breaking up for summer recess. Now a proper discussion up on the hill is dependant on someone taking a lead to get the required signatures. DUP must be crossing fingers that this does not happen and that over the summer the heat will be taken out of the situation with the passing of time.

    I think it is legitimate based on what is alleged in this case, to examine what might lie behind the Dups support for the Maze “peace” project.

  • If these allegations are true, the First Minister and Minister must resign. There have been too many of these allegations over the years and they must answer for them. As a voter and taxpayer I am sick of the alleged misuse and abuse of public funds. I hope there is a statement from the DUP explaining all this.

  • Paulk

    Not going to say too much (for obvious reasons) but brilliant investigative reporting from Spotlight. Lots of questions to answer for Nelson and the DUP. I honestly can’t see how he can really survive this if what has been alleged is true, if this was in GB they would be drafting the resignation letter already, but this is NI and i’m sure “something” will be “worked out” to save him.

  • Glenn B

    I know Nelson McCausland of old and have always found him a congenial, protestant christian principled man so the allegations presented leave me slightly dumbstruck based on my own experience, and I’ll leave my emotional jury out until Nelson has had a right of reply.

    As a businessman I’ve had my own dealings with Redsky in the past, and none where good. An arrogant, dismissive attitude to suppliers who (in my case) waited 9 months+ on payments that where due after 30 days net. Despite best efforts to maintain congenial, professional working relations it ended that I had to threaten to lift our unpaid materials from schemes they where used in to receive payment. That action by me resulted in market place bullying, and unwarranted commercial ridicule.

    My son lives in a NIHE property, and was a victim of workmanship not completed and shoddy workmanship. In the case of the non-work he was placed under undue stress (he’s a type 1 diabetic) because, frankly, the NIHE officials took the absolute that RedSky completed the work & thus my son must have been at fault in damaging or removing fittings his home. One official actually asked him to ‘come clean, you’ve sold the stuff, haven’t you?’ – an absolute pathetic remark & blinkered stereo-typing of a young man living on his own in the mid Shankill.

    When the work was eventually, actually, completed, the finished job was a botch so rather than procrastinate we paid privately to have the work completed.

    These 3 further examples are live instances of the negative impact RedSky created in peoples lives, and I would caution friends & colleagues rallying to litigation “to be sure, to be sure” because my own experience was dire.

  • Mick Fealty

    We know from past experience that there is no mechanism on the hill to force a minister to resign, no matter how many times they break their ministerial pledge, or have been proven incompetent at the wheel…

    My own questions arise (which don’t seem to have been addressed thus far) mostly from issues of governance and responsibilities:

    – Where the hell was the former CEO in all of this? Apart from allegations thrown in his direction, he seems to have been almost completely absent from consideration.

    – Why did a non executive Chair ‘appear’ to be making/taking executive decisions? Or am I missing a crucial element in my understanding of the way the NIHE’s extraordinarily politicalicised board runs?

    – As a core consideration we need to be clear whether this was primarily a failure of the contractors, or the Executive itself? There are other contractors who have been similarly put out of business waiting for this mess to get cleared up and others who fear they will be next.

    We got clarity on the failure of the contractor to count ‘towers’ (a hell of a mistake), and incompetence in west Belfast, south Belfast and elsewhere, but we did not get to examine the substance of the minister’s claim that these practices were widespread and commonplace. Nor, how this apparently incompetent contractor was allowed scale up their contracting work across Belfast. At whose expense?

    Housing elsewhere on these islands remained for a long time in the gift of locally elected councillors. Although that’s drifted since Thatcher’s housing reforms of the early 80s so that housing associations now operate former council housing stock at an arms length from councils themselves.

    On a point of information, the make up of the NIHE board is reflective of that old democratic oversight model. The NIHC is made up of the 26 councils and they get to appoint four political board members (I presume that Jenny Palmer is one of these). The rest are appointed by the minister.

    PS, a timeline would have been useful.

  • boondock

    Agree with Paulk if this was across the water the media would be in a frenzy and a whole load of heads would be rolling

  • chrisbrowne28 – The DUP have issued a statement disputing aspects of last night’s Spotlight and alleging defamatory comments, though it’s not on their website yet so can’t add a link to it here.

  • Mick Fealty

    Here it is:

    The BBC Spotlight programme contained a series of inaccurate claims and defamatory statements relating to the leader Peter Robinson, Minister Nelson McCausland and his adviser and other party representatives.

    The Party makes absolutely no apology for fighting to save the jobs of those who we believe were singled out and unfairly treated by the Housing Executive at that time. All political parties in East Belfast made strong representations on behalf of Red Sky, including those from both the Alliance and Ulster Unionist Party. Subsequent findings have demonstrated that four companies were identified as having overcharged in a way that dwarfed the scale of the Red Sky overcharging.

    All the meetings referred to during the course of the programme are a matter of public record.

    The Party has instructed lawyers to initiate action against Spotlight and a number of the participants on the basis of a series of inaccurate claims and defamatory statements contained within the programme. Such intolerable inaccuracies will be challenged using all available options and opportunities.

  • Paulk

    Well they are entitled to issue these statements however, i think these proceedings are more about creating a shield for the DUP not to answer any questions relating to this affair than to actually achieve clarity ie “as we’ve initiated legal proceedings i won’t be commenting further” etc etc…. get the summer over them and hope everyone has forgotten about it. Hopefully some of the parties in Stormont won’t roll over (UUP,SDLP,Alliance now is your chance to provide that famous opposition!!).

  • cynic2

    “Such intolerable inaccuracies will be challenged using all available options and opportunities.”

    Great and the disclosure of documents that that process will force will of course be incredibly interesting. I am sure however that BBC Lawyers were over all this with a fine tooth comb before it went out and suspect that in coming months legal action may be quietly shelved when the public have forgotten about red sky. After all it worked with Irisgate so give it a run again boys.

  • cynic2

    I have no direct experience of Red Sky or McCausland and will not comment on them at all. However I do have experience and knowledge of other processes involving other Departments. It has not been good ….on both side of the political fence .

    There do sometimes seem to be different individuals and groups who seem to have favoured positions This goes beyond the usual rough and tumble of business. One Irish contractor we hoped to sub to said he was shocked at how blatant it was up here with suggestions that there were certain subbies he really ‘must use’ on a Government Contract even to the extent of being given a helpful printed list of suggestions! I am sure they were just helping him out as he’s not from here.

    In the Red Sky Case – leaving totally aside any actions of the Ministers or SpAds – what was revealed seems to be prima facia allegations of criminal offences. So where is PSNI? Well they are down at the police board answering their own career threatening questions on the HET report!!!! Then there is their own procurement shambles at the Police College (last week) and the contractual issues around the reemployment of ex RUC officers (which still hasn’t gone away you know).

    The rule of law in any state requires a competent and reasonably honest administration held to account by an effective Assembly. That must bge backed up by a police force capable and willing of enforcing the law and presenting evidence to independent and fair prosecutors and courts. It also requires transparency in Government and especially in donations made by companies and individuals to political parties – probably a far bigger issue than personal corruption by politicians

    The Jury is out on whether or not we have that now. I know where my bet lies – I just hope I am wrong

  • Paulk

    One last thing about the statement from the DUP, if other companies were guilty of the alleged over charging and fraudulent practices etc. it doesn’t make Redsky’s alleged practices any less illegal/dishonest and secondly why on earth have we not heard anything further about them? Why were the DUP not shouting about it from the rooftops? except for a statement from Nelson in the last month which actually came from a HE investigation!! 2+2 is not equalling 4 here (no pun intended!).

  • Barnshee

    “why on earth have we not heard anything further about them? Why were the DUP not shouting about it from the rooftops”

    Will we now?

  • Paulk

    Indeed Barnshee, If other companies are guilty of it let the full force of the law be used against them, i have no problem with this i don’t think anybody does, but why have the DUP kept relatively silent on it up till now?

    The fact that he and his party stood by Red Sky after these practices came to light on the basis of quote Mick provided”….Subsequent findings have demonstrated that four companies were identified as having overcharged in a way that dwarfed the scale of the Red Sky overcharging….” means they had chosen to remain silent about those companies committing alleged larger acts of fraud until recently, when Nelson McCausland made a statement to the assembly about NIHE overpaying for work, passing it off as his own when it was in fact the work of the NIHE itself.
    Could it be he had forwarning of the Spotlight programme and wanted to get his punch in first?

  • Mick Fealty

    Minister saying he had to drag this research and report out of the NIHE… he provides a timeline which I would hope will be available afterwards… Red Sky is history, the argument appears to be about procedures, rather than outcomes…

  • tacapall

    ““why on earth have we not heard anything further about them? Why were the DUP not shouting about it from the rooftops”

    Because Red Sky changed their company name, changed the logo on their vans and continued to use the same workforce, they have not dissapeared, they were still operating up until a few weeks ago. I cant understand the finger just being pointed at the DUP after all its not McCausland who rubber stamps applications for work to be carried out, nor is it McCausland who rubber stamps the payments to contractors. [Mod – section removed] Its widely known that when it comes to allocating housing the process is not decided on need but rather on who you know or or certain politicians, councilors putting the word in the right ear for you. This scandal around Red Sky is only the tip of the iceberg and someone is going to reveal all eventually whether thats imminent or in the future is uncertain, but it will happen.

  • CoisteBodhar

    Slightly off topic but can someone remind me if we are any further along in terms of transparency in political donations or contributions

  • Morpheus


    To my knowldge this is how it currently stands:

    “An all-party House of Commons committee has called for the confidentiality around large donations to political parties in Northern Ireland to end. A report published by the Northern Ireland Affairs select committee said the changes should come into effect by October 2014.”

    tacapall: “This scandal around Red Sky is only the tip of the iceberg and someone is going to reveal all eventually whether thats imminent or in the future is uncertain, but it will happen.”

    How long did it take for the truth behind Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough to come out again?

  • Mick Fealty

    Nope. nor on liberalising libel laws..

  • tacapall

    The thing is Morpheus this is not a British government conspiracy this is our own wee corrupt politicians and their minions in the Housing Executive and what I said above spans across the sectarian divide, nearly all political parties are involved in “Doing favours” for certain people regardless that others have more need or been on the waiting lists longer scandals like this and the scandal surrounding contractors like Red Sky will come to the fore and its not just the DUP who will fall by the sword on the matter.

  • michael-mcivor

    DUP Special Advisor to DUP Councillor-

    ” we need you to do that-the party comes first ”

    So if this special advisor is asked to leave his job for the good of the party he would agree or would he tell his DUP leaders to spad off-

  • Granni Trixie


    Your statements imply that there is a general acceptability that houses are not awarded according to need etc. so what was civil rights campaign about if not to change such systems?
    I certainly do not find the standards you describe unacceptable.

    I do however see that there is evidence that some political parties do seem to be “guided” in decisions by whats in it for them rather than public interest or value for money considerations.

  • Granni Trixie

    Ought to have said acceptable,

  • tacapall

    “Your statements imply that there is a general acceptability that houses are not awarded according to need etc. so what was civil rights campaign about if not to change such systems”

    Thats exactly what Im saying Granni I think everyone knows what the civil rights campaign was about but in what way does that change anything I said ? Certain councilors and politicians do “favours” for friends, certain people who are connected to certain parties and those who cross their palms, no different than those politicians who have in the past used their influences to ensure positive planning decisions for builders and buddies or those who contribute to the party coffers. Housing officers connected to certain political parties do exactly the same, just like those housing executive employees who rubber stamp the work permits for contractors in return for favours. Please dont try and suggest not all political parties at Stormont and Belfast city hall dont engage in this practice.

  • Granni Trixie

    Well put it another way:I would not belong to a political party which acted in the way you suggest. But then maybe I don’t know the people you know.

    Surely it’s unfair to tarnish all politicians with the same brush?

  • tacapall

    Mick just asking, why did you moderate my post ?

  • Mick Fealty

    Did I? What happened?

  • tacapall

    4 July 2013 at 12:13 pm

  • Most likely I did in order not to delete the whole comment – you went beyond the bounds of fact and the allegation felt challengable.

  • tacapall

    Felt challengable.and beyond the bounds of fact Alan ?

  • tacapall – And now the sentence is gone we can’t go back and look. The other option was that – like some other comments in this chain – it was completely removed.

  • Bear in the air

    Apparently the eighteen million is the tip of the iceberg,the ‘Heating’ will dwarf this!

  • BluesJazz[1.47] I agree completely with that verdict which is a damning one on the setup of Stormont. Devolution works fine in Scotland, Wales [or if the English wanted it in England but it has failed twice here and they’re just going through the motions and collected their undeserved proceeds from the trough. What should have been done in 2007 was the current set of executive ministers should have been appointed to the NIO depts instead of politicians from Britain with no FM or DFM simply Sec of state. The DUPs bluff should be called by the other parties to throw out the DUP amendment and force them to carry out their threat to block the inquiry and see how their poll ratings withstand the fallout from that The Police should be brought in if Baggott can steel his backbone to the task.

  • tapacall[12.55] It shows the brass neck the DUP have [if proof were still needed] that their justification for calling the HE’s singling out of Red Sky sectarian, is mirrored by their own singling out of RS as every bit as sectarian. Who in nationalist community believes that were Red Sky a mainly catholc employer, the DUP would have gone through such hoops to get them reinstated? Not many, is the glaring answer. Robinson’s name for being a safe pair of political hands is surely taking a battering since the leaflets stunt.