THE businessman who has cleared his name three years after being sacked from Northern Ireland Water by Conor Murphy last night asked why taxpayers had been left with a huge legal bill over the case.
Declan Gormley, the Claudy businessman who two months ago won £80,000 in damages from Sinn Fein over a related legal action, said that yesterday’s settlement could have been reached almost immediately had Mr Murphy accepted that his sacking was unjustified.
Two years ago, when the News Letter revealed that Mr Gormley was suing the department, Mr Murphy and others, he was quoted in this newspaper saying that he was not interested in making money from the case and if he won he would only seek to recoup his legal costs.
The businessman pledged to donate any compensation to charity.
However, the Department of Regional Development (DRD) instructed lawyers to contest the case and only backed down ahead of a trial which had been expected to begin within weeks.
Speaking to the News Letter last night, Mr Gormley said he was surprised that when Mr Murphy left the department almost two years ago and UUP minister Danny Kennedy arrived, the unionist minister continued to contest the case and several requests for mediation were rejected.
He said that even a cursory glance at how he was dismissed should have caused alarm but added: “Certainly after the UTV programme and the media coverage from the News Letter and others, it was quite clear that something had seriously gone awry here.
“Therefore, I would have expected that the matter could have been dealt with much, much quicker than it has been.”
Mr Gormley added: “I think that the general approach to these is that if you drag these out for as long as you can, there’s every possibility that the individual will either give up, go away or simply not have the resources to pursue the case.
“I think there is an element to it that when you’re using taxpayers’ money there’s no personal risk to you in using that money then I think it’s quite easy for you to decide to use that money to prolong a case far, far beyond what would be the normal resources of any normal individual.”
The businessman said that his legal advice had been “very strong” and “very clear”, but added: “Even without the legal advice, it was very clear that what had gone on here was wrong; I think what this illustrates is that there exists almost a moral vacuum within the civil service mentality.
“I don’t think that anybody at the DRD or anybody who was the subject of the writ that I had issued were really defending this case on the basis that they were right and I was wrong. I think they were absolutely using taxpayers’ money to deflect from the fact that what had happened was wrong and that by doing that they were hoping that the case would go away.
“I was determined that would not be the case.”
Last year the News Letter twice asked Mr Kennedy why his department was spending public money contesting Mr Gormley’s case when he had been exonerated by Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee which denounced the circumstances behind his sacking.
Mr Kennedy declined to comment and when then asked whether he could stand over the money being spent by his department defending the case, he said: “Without prejudice we have to say that each case stands or falls on its own merits and you have to give consideration on that basis.”
Last night Mr Gormley said: “I think the lack of a formal Stormont Opposition is a deficit in the way government is conducted in Northern Ireland because I think that in circumstances where there is an Opposition this would probably have had a higher profile.”
However, Mr Gormley said that he had been “enormously encouraged” that in speaking to people from every political party – from the TUV to Sinn Fein – there were those who worked to help him.
“The people that I would particularly like to thank are Patsy McGlone, John Dallat, Dawn Purvis, John McCallister, Jim Wells and Jim Allister who all either actively participated to help me move it on, advised me or in many ways tried to assist me to get a resolution.”
An “absolutely delighted” Mr Gormley said he was surprised that even now Mr Murphy had issued a statement rejecting the apology when DRD, the only shareholder in NI Water, had “categorically acknowledged that I was guilty of no wrongdoing”.
“Mr Murphy needs to remember that he was the former minister and the other people named in that writ (Paul Priestly, Gary Fair and Lian Patterson) worked for that department. Clearly the department have confirmed what I’ve been stating all along – that I was entirely innocent of any wrongdoing.”
He added: “The minister failed to recognise that he had got it wrong and that was compounded that his civil servants refused to actually advise him to deal with it.
“All of that led to a protracted case costing tens of thousands of pounds to defend the indefensible.
“The outcome today was one that I would have been more than happy to settle for two-and-a-half years ago and it’s an outcome which I think could have been delivered two-and-a-half years ago