FORMER Ulster Unionist deputy leader John McCallister privately urged his then UUP colleague Danny Kennedy to apologise to former NI Water director Declan Gormley, the South Down MLA has said.
Mr Gormley – who was sacked by Mr Kennedy’s predecessor as regional development minister, Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy – this week won a rare public apology from Mr Kennedy’s department, which agreed to pay Mr Gormley’s substantial legal costs after two years of wrangling.
Now, Mr McCallister has revealed that he privately contacted both Mr Murphy and Mr Kennedy – who succeeded him almost two years ago – and advised them to accept that Mr Gormley should never have been sacked as a NI Water director.
Last night Mr Kennedy said that it would be “inappropriate” for him to comment beyond his written statement on Thursday.
That statement said that there had been “tough negotiations by both parties” before it was possible “to reach a settlement on the basis of an apology on behalf of the department and the payment of Mr Gormley’s reasonable legal costs”.
Under Mr Murphy’s tenure, Mr Gormley had attempted to secure an apology from the department after the emergence of considerable evidence that the arguments behind his sacking were flawed.
When Mr Murphy repeatedly refused to meet him, the Claudy businessman launched legal proceedings alleging misconduct in public office and defamation. Despite the department changing from Sinn Fein to Ulster Unionist hands in May 2011, it continued to defend the case with public money until now – just weeks before a trial was to start.
Yesterday, Mr McCallister – who quit the UUP a week ago – said: “I got involved in it maybe about two-and-a-half years ago and especially after the PAC report came out which was very critical of how Declan was sacked.
“I was saying that this really needs to be dealt with and right from the outset he had made clear that he was never asking for financial compensation, but just to have his name cleared.
“I kept on making that case – both when Conor Murphy was minister and then when Danny Kennedy became minister I continued to make that case.”
Mr Gormley made several attempts to seek mediation – even after the legal action was commenced – which were rejected, something Mr McCallister said was a mistake.
“I’m very concerned that right across government they don’t always seem to think about whether it’s right or wrong, but more or less seem to take the view that ‘we have deeper pockets than you’.”
Mr McCallister said that he had “hoped” the approach to the case would change when the UUP took the department but added: “The difficulty they seemed to get into was that the legal advice – and I wasn’t shown it – always seemed to be saying ‘we’ll fight this and we’ll wait to see what is the outcome of the other cases’.
“As Conor Murphy’s decisions started to unravel with the Alan Lennon case [the man whom a tribunal found Mr Murphy discriminated against because he was a Protestant], the department had another opportunity to settle the Gormley case but there seemed to be a willingness to wait for the outcome of the libel case against Sinn Fein.
“When Declan won that, there was more willingness to settle but it’s more than two months to get it sorted.”
He added: “Declan took on not only the government but the Sinn Fein machine – which was a courageous decision – and won.”
Mr Gormley won a separate legal victory against Sinn Fein in December, when a jury found that the party had maliciously libelled him in two press releases and Sinn Fein was ordered to compensate him with £80,000.
After securing the apology on Thursday, Mr Gormley thanked Mr McCallister along with the SDLP’s John Dallat and Patsy McGlone, the DUP’s Jim Wells, former independent MLA Dawn Purvis and TUV leader Jim Allister for supporting his case.