OFMDFM challenged in victims’ website row

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A FORMER leader of the Ulster Unionist Party has asked the first minister’s office to explain why it privately tried to have criticism of the DUP removed from the website of victims group FAIR.

The call comes after the News Letter discovered that the first minister’s office highlighted FAIR’s website to the Community Relations Council (CRC) for intervention.

The first minister’s principal private secretary emailed a link from FAIR’s website to civil servants on February 18 last year, with the link then being forwarded to CRC chief Duncan Morrow with the message “give me a call urgently to discuss”. The CRC is an arms-length-body under the office of first and deputy first minister (OFMDFM) which provides core funding to FAIR.

After getting the OFMDFM email, Mr Morrow then challenged FAIR to remove the document, which was a critique on the DUP-SF agreement on the devolution of policing and justice.

But FAIR director Willie Frazer refused, saying he had always financed the website from his own pocket and that CRC had no jurisdiction over it.

Ex-UUP leader Lord Empey says that questions must now be asked of the first minister Peter Robinson about what the peer saw as a party political use of the first minister’s office.

“FAIR was always very outspoken on political matters from its inception and always had funding granted on this basis,” the UUP peer said. “FAIR had DUP backing for political lobbying for Libyan compensation, for example, and it carried out many high profile demonstrations during various political events.”

Lord Empey also questioned how often civil servants sent emails to challenge FAIR’s criticism of senior members of Sinn Fein.

“Was there an imbalance in how FAIR was treated?” Lord Empey said. “It would appear that there is a bias in OFMDFM’s reaction to something said by FAIR which was critical of the DUP. We can’t say FAIR’s funding was cut because of this but it is perfectly fair to ask for an explanation from the office of first and deputy first minister about its email to CRC.”

Lord Empey said he accepted FAIR’s view that victims’ issues cannot be easily isolated to purely non-political matters.

Similarly, TUV leader Jim Allister asked if the email from the first minister’s office was “the smoking gun” which showed “OFMDFM/DUP displeasure” with FAIR due to the “adverse political content” of the group’s website.

The OFMDFM email was uncovered by the News Letter under the Freedom of Information Act after almost all FAIR’s executive funding was cut off 12 months ago.

Ten FAIR employees were laid off after the Special EU Projects Body (SEUPB), which operates under finance minister Sammy Wilson, cut off FAIR funding in July 2010. In September, SEUPB said it had uncovered “major failures” in FAIR’s ability to adhere to its funding conditions and that FAIR had been given every chance to respond to issues raised in a tendering and administration audit.

However Newry and Armagh MLA Danny Kennedy said that SEUPB has given “no details of the specific charges against FAIR” and that this was “frankly unacceptable”. The CRC also put significant restrictions on FAIR’s core funding on the strength of SEUPB’s concerns and says its own investigation into the matter is still incomplete.

The department of finance says that SEUPB asked the PSNI to investigate in late 2010, however FAIR says it has still seen no specific charges of wrongdoing from police either.

A spokesman for OFMDFM responded: “All organisations in receipt of public funds are required to comply with conditions set out in contracts or letters of offer. Any potential breaches of these conditions are investigated as a matter of routine.”

A CRC spokesman said the OFMDFM email was one of “a number of pieces of evidence... that confirmed to us the need for FAIR to separate personal political campaigning and commentary from FAIR’s organisational information”.