McCausland hearing halted after heckling from DUP members

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A meeting of the Stormont committee investigating allegations made in a BBC Spotlight programme was halted on Thursday in highly unusual circumstances.

The Social Development Committee was taking evidence on oath (although he chose to affirm rather than swear an oath) from DUP minister Nelson McCausland about allegations of political interference in the Housing Executive and claims he misled the Assembly.

Thursday’s hearing involved repeated clashes between the committee’s Sinn Fein chairman, Alex Maskey, and DUP members Sammy Wilson and Trevor Clarke.

They alleged that he was allowing questions beyond the inquiry’s remit but he claimed they were showing disrespect for his position as chairman.

After repeated warnings that he would adjourn the hearing, Mr Maskey took that option 50 minutes into the meeting.

The meeting ended as Mr McCausland was facing close questioning from TUV leader Jim Allister, leading to strong DUP objections.

Barbara McConaghie, Mr McCausland’s former private secretary in the department, had previously told the committee that she changed minutes of a key meeting to say that Mr McCausland had met the Glass and Glazing Federation, rather than Turkington Holdings, a firm which donated to the DUP.

She said that she would not have done so of her own volition but under instruction – most likely from the minister, his special adviser, Stephen Brimstone or a senior official – though she could not recall who had asked her to make the change.

On Thursday Mr McCausland said that at this distance from the event he could not recall whether he had asked her to make the change.

Sinn Fein’s Mickey Brady said that Ms McConaghie had worked with Mr McCausland when he was culture minister and requested to move with him to his current department, “so obviously there was a working relationship there. I’m just wondering is there any other ties...are there any other church connections or anything like that with Ms McConaghie?”

Mr McCausland briefly paused before saying: “I am absolutely amazed,” at which point Gregory Campbell interrupted and Mr Maskey intervened to say that the question was inappropriate.

Mr McCausland then chose to respond, saying: “I think the question is absolutely, totally inappropriate. The answer to the question, actually, would be no, but it should never have been asked in the first place,” adding there was “no church connection, no other connection”.

Mr Allister asked whether he had requested that Ms McConaghie follow him to DSD, a question Mr McCausland said was “irrelevant” but went on to say that Ms McConaghie had “done a very good job when I was in DCAL” and that both of them were happy for her to move.

Then, after Mr Allister asked if the minister had attempted to work out who had instructed Ms McConaghie to make the change, the DUP’s Trevor Clarke jumped to say “before you start, part of the question has been left out...”.

Mr Maskey told him to stop talking but the DUP MLA continued to speak until Mr Maskey said: “I hereby adjourn this inquiry this morning.”