Some, presumably, unintentionally revealing details from the former Northern Ireland Finance Minister, Sinn Féin’s Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, who appeared in front of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Inquiry yesterday. This from his written statement [pdf file]
16. The bundle of documents referred to above appears to indicate that you used the email account firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss, share, transact, or otherwise communicate Executive business and Executive policy; and that you discussed, shared, transacted, or otherwise communicated Executive business and Executive policy with persons using non-Executive or Civil Service email accounts. As to this, please explain:
a. The reason(s) for sending such information from a non-Executive or non-Civil Service email account and the steps, if any, you undertook to ensure information security when doing so.
“This was the e-mail I normally used to communicate with party colleagues and constituents. In terms of security I was and am confident the e-mail account, the only email attached to a secure and stand-alone domain, is best-in-class. The official ministerial email was used by and controlled by my officials. I had no direct access to this account.”
b. The reason(s) for sending such information from a non-Executive or non-Civil Service email account and the steps, if any, you undertook to ensure information security when doing so.
“This is a secure e-mail which I commonly used to communicate with party colleagues and constituents.”
c. Where information was provided for policy development or scrutiny to Sinn Féin officials or employees who were not Special Advisers (and, accordingly, temporary civil servants) what steps, if any, were taken to ensure information security on the part of those persons and/or that they adhered to obligations similar to those set out in the Northern Ireland Civil Service Handbook and/or Code of Ethics.
“All those within Sinn Féin to whom I provided information for the purpose of policy advice were expected to treat such information with confidentiality and were people I trusted.”
[Can I get an FOI request on that? – Ed] Beyond peradventure!
The News Letter’s Sam McBride has more on that part of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir’s evidence
Inquiry barrister Donal Lunny put it to the Sinn Féin MLA that although he was referring to Mr McAteer as a Spad, he was not officially a Spad. Mr Ó Muilleoir said that was because of the 2013 legislation barring such individuals from being Spads.
Later, under pressure to explain Mr McAteer’s contract – which suggested he was employed by the party’s chief whip, Caral Ni Chuilin, potentially through Assembly funds and therefore another stream of public money, Mr Ó Muilleoir said he could not be certain that he was paid by the party.
When asked if Mr McAteer’s continued role as a senior Spad was known to senior civil servants at the time, Mr Ó Muilleoir said: “I believe so, yes.”
Mr Lunny asked if Mr McAteer would have continued to be in the deputy First Minister’s office and interacting with the Head of the Civil Service, Sir Malcolm McKibbin.
Mr Ó Muilleoir said: “Absolutely. I don’t think there would have been any difference in Mr McAteer’s role pre and post the 2013 act in terms of how he would have behaved and done his job every day.”
Mr Ó Muilleoir said he was unaware of any senior civil servant raising concerns about the arrangement and that he was in contact with Mr McAteer “probably every day” receiving instructions or advice.
The South Belfast MLA said that he believed Mr McAteer was expected to be held to the same codes of conduct as other Spads and that Mr McGuinness would have expected him to act to standards “higher again than all the codes put together”.
Sir Patrick put to him that “it is important from a democratic, transparent point of view that there is a code that is mandatory, there is an act passed by the Assembly – those are democratic standards”.
Mr Lunny highlighted that Mr McAteer’s terms and conditions of employment did nothing to suggest that he was bound by the same rules as Spads and was instead bound by a party code which stressed that he should act to protect the party’s interests.
The inquiry was told that Mr McAteer’s contract referred to him having a role in the Assembly – not the Executive – which involved overseeing an MLA research team and other duties which do not appear to reflect what he was actually doing.
Mr Ó Muilleoir accepted it would be better to make it clear he was subject to the Spad code but said he could not explain why it had not been the case. He said that “Sinn Féin was not going to change its employment practices and discriminate against people who…because of the law passed in 2013 which we opposed”.
Sir Patrick highlighted that the mandatory code for Spads said “they should avoid anything which might reasonably lead to the criticism that people paid from public funds are being used for party political purposes”.
Sir Patrick said that it seemed to him that all the Sinn Féin Spads “subjected themselves to management and coordination by an individual who was paid from party funds” in apparent conflict with the legal code.
He asked Mr Ó Muilleoir whether the party had set up its procedure “on the basis that the code didn’t apply to them”. Mr Ó Muilleoir said: “I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of that.”
Indeed… Finally, a reminder of Sinn Fein’s response when it was revealed that six Irish Government Ministers had been using unencrypted private email accounts to send official government information. From a Sinn Féin statement in December 2016
“In reply to my question, the Tánaiste said that she had used a personal email address in her own role.
“This admission is shocking and extremely concerning given Frances Fitzgerald’s role as both Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality.
“The Taoiseach replied that he too, has used his private email account for official purposes and he put this down to so-called ‘operational reasons’.
“A number of other Ministers admitted to using private emails for official business of a ‘non-sensitive’ manner. Given that ‘non-sensitive’ is quite a loose term, this reply from Ministers Creed, Mitchell O’Connor, Humphreys, Bruton, and Harris is hardly convincing. What is seen as sensitive to one Minister could be seen very differently by another Minister.
“Many of the Ministers, in their replies, sought to include what could only be seen as an excuse when it comes to use of unsecured email addresses in that ‘there is currently no policy preventing members of Government using personal accounts’. This is simply unacceptable.
“No Minister should be using any private unsecured email accounts for any official business whatsoever.