It has emerged that a top civil servant who recently warned staff against making political statements had openly applauded the DUP’s electoral success in South Belfast last year – prompting strong Ulster Unionist criticism.
Pictures and video have surfaced showing Richard Pengelly, permanent secretary of the Department for Health, clapping and smiling amid a crowd of DUP supporters after the results of the Assembly election became known.
One of the MLAs who had just been elected was Emma Little Pengelly, his wife.
The other was Christopher Stalford.
As reported by the News Letter, Mr Pengelly recently sent an email to the Province’s health trusts, telling them he is “increasingly concerned” at the number of “overtly political” messages from health staff on the internet – citing two Twitter messages in particular, which were critical of the DUP and Sinn Fein.
He said staff must remember such messages are “not appropriate”.
In the footage which has now been unearthed, Mr Pengelly is pictured at the King’s Hall vote-counting centre last May, alongside Nigel and Diane Dodds, plus the two newly victorious election candidates and others.
A delighted cheers is heard to go up as Mr Stalford and Mrs Little Pengelly hold each others’ arms aloft, whilst Mr Pengelly and others applaud.
The scene unfolded in front of a battery of cameras.
The two new MLAs then went on to make statements about their electoral success.
Mr Pengelly was appointed permanent secretary at the Department of Health in 2014.
He was previously permanent secretary of the Department for Regional Development.
The UUP released a statement in the name of Rosemary Barton, MLA candidate for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, in which she said that – in light of the images – it had been “blatantly hypocritical” of Mr Pengelly to try and “silence health workers from expressing political opinions”.
Meanwhile, UUP colleague Jo-Anne Dobson (standing in Upper Bann) said she had spoken to a number of healthcare workers who were “perplexed that the supposedly busiest permanent secretary in the country has time to monitor social media accounts”.
The Department of Health was asked if Mr Pengelly wanted to respond to this criticism.
It sent a statement which said in full: “HSC (health and social care) staff have the right to express their own personal opinions on social media. However this should be in line with the HSC Code of Conduct, applicable to all HSC employees, which sets out the core standards of conduct expected of HSC staff and which compliments individual organisations policies and procedures.”
The South-Eastern Health Trust had already revealed that it had passed Mr Pengelly’s message, warning staff not to make political comments, on to its emplyoees.
The remaining five trusts (including the Ambulance Service), were asked on Tuesday if they had done likewise.
The Belfast Trust said it had “reminded our staff of the sensitivities around social media in advance of the election”, whilst the Southern Trust said it had “signposted” staff towards its social media policy in a recent online newsletter.
The Northern Trust meanwhile said that it intends to “signpost staff to the Assembly Election Guidance issued to assist public sector staff during an election period”.
The Ambulance Serivce said it had received Mr Pengelly’s correspondence, but said only that “staff are aware of their responsibilities” – not that it has acted to remind them.
The Western Trust had not yet responded at time of going to press.