What happens next? Where will the Spotlight now shine?

  • With only thirty signatures needing to be submitted to the Speaker, the Assembly is very likely to be recalled early next week to allow a piece of predictable political theatre to be rehearsed in the chamber. Party leaders will compete for sound bites; DUP back and front benchers will interject and vigorously support their embattled minister, and there will be more heat than light.
  • The Social Development Committee will hold an inquiry with invitations extended to Mandy McAuley and the Spotlight team; the minister; the minister’s SPAD Stephen Brimstone; reversible window hinge experts; employees and ex-employees of Red Sky Totalis and other companies (which may or may not be in administration); the board and so-far absent chief executive of the NIHE; maintenance managers who may or may not have been taking bribes. The inquiry may start during the summer, but it real work will not commence until the autumn.
  • If allegations of bribery are made to the PSNI, they’ll start an investigation.
  • A complaint may be made to the Assembly Commissioner for Standards who will acknowledge it, consider its admissibility, investigate the matter and report (without recommendations) to the Assembly’s Committee on Standards and Privileges who may or may not agree with the Commissioner in terms of upholding/dismissing the complaint and take it upon themselves to make further investigations, produce a report and if appropriate agree sanctions (eg, the member apologises or is suspended from the Assembly with/without pay for a period).
  • The DUP will no doubt internally discuss the actions of their Lisburn councillor Jenny Palmer. Does Peter Robinson’s top drawer of resignation letters include ones for councillors as well as MLAs? Lisburn city council is a tetchy place at the best of times. Jenny Palmer and her husband – also a councillor – may experience the worst of the pantomime behaviour (booing and hissing) when they next attend a council meeting. (Nothing scheduled until 23 July.)
  • As a temporary civil servant, complaints about the DSD Minister’s special advisor will be made to the department’s permanent secretary and/or the head of the NI Civil Service. Jim Allister has today written to Malcolm McKibben asking for an investigation around sections 5 and 6 of the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers.

5. Special Advisers should conduct themselves with integrity and honesty. …

6. Special Advisers should not use official resources for party political activity. They are employed to serve the objectives of the Administration and the Department in which they work. It is this which justifies their being paid from public funds and being able to use public resources, and explains why their participation in party politics is clearly limited. They should act in a way which upholds the political impartiality of civil servants. They should avoid anything which might reasonable lead to the criticism that people paid from public funds are being used for party political purposes.

  • Journalists will continue to dig into the background of the many-tentacled story. Expect more investigation from The Detail. There will be a reluctance to repeat too many of the detailed allegations made by Spotlight. But there are plenty of human interest angles – upset whistle-blowing councillors, unemployed maintenance company workers, residents in NIHE properties needing work – on top of the straight reporting of the many parallel investigations. The Health department and minister Edwin Poots will breathe a sigh of relief that the focus has moved away from waiting lists and residential homes.

Have I missed any?

There are of course other political consequences and perception issues.

Speaking on Lisburn’s 98FM On the Record politics programme at lunchtime, commentator Alex Kane gave his view of the political impact:

The [DUP] have had a terrible couple of weeks. It goes back to the time of the Maze. The disputes they’re having with the UUP, the TUV, the UKIP and the Orange Order. The difficulties they’re now having with the Unionist Forum which seems to be falling apart day by day which is supposed to be the great big vehicle for bringing everyone together. We now have this problem – the Spotlight programme last night.

The problem with this is that it’s almost like a perception. There comes a stage when it doesn’t really matter about the accuracy of the programme. It doesn’t really matter about little niggly internal/external problems. There comes a moment in political parties when sometimes almost anything they do just reconfirms someone’s suspicion of them.

I saw it happen up close and personal with the Ulster Unionist Party over two or three years. It got to the point that no matter what they did, the perception just seemed to ram home to people that they were a party in big, big trouble.

He looked back at the personal price Peter Robinson paid – rather than the party – after the previous Spotlight programme that focussed on Iris Robinson.

He asked whether a proportion of DUP supporters would just stay at home or whether they’d go to the UUP or the TUV. Given Spotlight on top of existing issues like the Maze, if 8-12% of DUP voters gave up on them it could change the balance of the Assembly.

All it needs is 7 or 8 seats for the DUP to lose to mean they are no longer the top party.

Nelson McCausland’s confident performance at the Social Development committee this morning will have minimised the early damage. Given the ups and downs of Nelson’s spell at the helm of DSD, it must be tempting to rotate the minister over the summer Yet Peter Robinson’s remaining patience will have to be balanced with his grasp of the negative perception of a disappearing minister under fire

Unionist unity will certainly be on the back burner for a few months, but there is time to rebuild strategic alliances after next year’s Euro elections.

No matter whether the allegations made on Spotlight are true or not, NI21 have been a huge opening to ask voters to switch away from the dust cloud that surrounds the existing parties and instead support their “fresh” new vehicle. If NI21 doesn’t grab this gift bull by the horns and capitalise on the opportunity they may as well pack away the banners and retire.

Alliance will hope for a bounce. Jim Allister will be in his element finding ways of keeping the DUP under pressure. The SDLP will throw badly shaped snowballs across the chamber and the airwaves, all the time having to fend off the DUP’s likely retaliation against their Minister for Planning and Local Government Reform, Alex Attwood.

And Sinn Fein will stay remarkably quiet, knowing how awful NI Water-gate was for them.

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