Humility is needed when ministers get it wrong

Morning View
Morning View

Nelson McCausland has done what successive social development ministers have failed to do – expose institutional faults within the Housing Executive.

In doing so, he has performed one of the primary roles of a government minister: representing the public interest when officials behave in a way which is either sloppy, as appears to be the case here, or corrupt.

Yet ministers also have wider responsibilities. When making serious allegations in the Assembly, a forum which leaves those criticised with no legal redress, they have to rigorously examine the facts of the case.

It is now clear that some of Mr McCausland’s facts about alleged overpayments for Housing Executive maintenance – which were given to him by the NIHE – were deficient.

While there were lax procedures at the NIHE which have cost taxpayers millions of pounds, the scale of the particular problem highlighted by Mr McCausland was less than he forcefully suggested.

His decision to name one company, Dixon Contractors, in the context of allegations of potential corruption means that it is only fair that he now apologise to that company in as public a manner as he laid it open to public criticism.

Doing so would strengthen his argument that his Assembly statement was made in good faith, on the basis of information given to him, amid the context of institutional faults.

A protracted refusal to admit that he has made a serious mistake will raise further questions about why he is so reluctant to admit that he got it wrong in the Assembly.

Mr McCausland was already facing calls from political rivals to resign after an Assembly committee found that he had deliberately misled it. It would be politically pragmatic now to show humility and return the focus to his admirable determination to fix problems at NIHE and his other pressing task: welfare reform.