No DUP MLAs speak in defence of Jenny Palmer’s Spad allegations

Social Development minister Nelson McCausland
Social Development minister Nelson McCausland

Not a single DUP MLA spoke in defence of their party colleague Jenny Palmer’s allegations on Monday during almost three hours of Assembly debate on last week’s BBC Spotlight programme.

The Assembly was recalled from its summer recess to discuss the serious claims, many of them against the DUP, in the investigation broadcast last week.

The central witness in that programme was Mrs Palmer, a Lisburn DUP councillor, who said that she had been left distressed after being told by DUP minister Nelson McCausland’s special adviser, Stephen Brimstone, to change her vote at a key Housing Executive board meeting in favour of the contractor Red Sky.

She alleged that when she objected to what was being asked of her, Mr Brimstone told her: “The party comes first. You do what you’re told.”

In a solicitor’s letter to the BBC, Mr Brimstone denied that. He has since declined to be interviewed.

At the weekend, several DUP councillors in Lisburn said that they had been told not to speak about the issue while one, former Lisburn mayor Paul Porter, hung up on the News Letter when asked for his view.

On Monday at Stormont there was limited evidence of open support for Mrs Palmer on the DUP benches but members of other parties praised her for speaking out.

The only DUP member to refer to her by name was Health Minister Edwin Poots, who said that he had known her for a long time, and added: “I find her an honourable lady, I respect her and I hold her and her family in high regard.”

However, Mr Poots made no comment about her conversation with Mr Brimstone, instead moving on to allege that she had been “deeply concerned” about actions of the previous SDLP minister Margaret Ritchie.

Mr McCausland did not refer to Mrs Palmer by name but said that his adviser would have been “wrong” not to phone Mrs Palmer and give her “some understanding of the broader context of all this”.

He said that it had been a “short, eight-minute conversation”.

Mr McCausland said that a crucial meeting between him and the former owners of Red Sky – which Spotlight said was a breach of his ministerial code as the administrators running Red Sky at the time were not present – was not “a secretive or shady meeting”.

He said that the Housing Executive had been aware of that meeting and had contacted the administrator about it.

During frequently heated exchanges in the chamber, DUP MLA Gregory Campbell said that the BBC Spotlight programme had been “absolutely scandalous”, questioning why former SDLP social development ministers had not been interviewed.

But TUV leader Jim Allister said that Mr Brimstone had “behaved in a bully-boy fashion to a member of his own party”.

Sinn Fein’s Caitriona Ruane questioned whether any of those on the Spotlight programme from Turkington Holdings or Red Sky were DUP donors and added that there was “no place for a brown envelope culture”.

SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan said that he had no reason to doubt what Mrs Palmer said and that if it was true either Mr Brimstone or Mr McCausland had breached their respective codes of conduct.

A motion expressing concern at the allegations and calling for an inquiry into the Spotlight claims was passed by 54 votes to 34 but vetoed by the DUP which used a ‘Petition of Concern’ to stop it being approved.

The party argued that the motion was insufficiently wide, but opponents accused the party of abusing the spirit of the Petition of Concern – which was a part of the Agreement intended to protect the interests of unionism or nationalism – by tabling it in defence of the party.

At one point, the angry mood lifted and MLAs applauded when Jim Allister referred to the presence of independent unionist David McClarty who was back in the chamber after receiving treatment for cancer.