Sam McBride: DUP man pockets £9,000 for board role – but doesn’t go to any meetings (and four other things we learned at the Assembly this week)

Political editor Sam McBride examines five developments at the Northern Ireland Assembly this week.

Thursday, 3rd December 2020, 7:02 am
Updated Thursday, 3rd December 2020, 10:41 am
Ian McCrea has not attended a Loughs Agency board meeting for almost two years but has been paid £9,000

DUP man’s free money

A former DUP MLA has been receiving thousands of pounds for sitting on a north-south body despite not attending a single board meeting in almost two years – and nothing is being done about it, the Assembly has been told.

Ian McCrea was a DUP MLA for Mid Ulster until he lost his seat in 2016 and failed to get elected as a Mid Ulster councillor last year. However, within months of leaving the Assembly he had been appointed to the Loughs Agency.

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This week, in response to a written Assembly question from TUV leader Jim Allister, DUP minister Edwin Poots confirmed that Mr McCrea has been paid more than £9,000 by for his board role – while not attending not one of the ten board meetings in that period.

Mr Poots said: “There is no specific provision which specifically states attendance at meetings of North/South Implementation Bodies as a condition of receiving remuneration.”

Mr Allister said the situation was “extraordinary” and added: “It is indefensible to be paid over £9,000 of public money for a role which it would he seems to have devoted little if any time.”

Mr Poots did say that the North South Ministerial Council had the power to dismiss a person if “he or she fails without reasonable excuse to discharge his or her functions for a continuous period of 3 months”. Mr Allister said that he had now asked Mr Poots if he will ask that body – made up of Stormont and Oireachtas ministers – to dismiss Mr McCrea from the board.

MLA smarting at criticism

Sinn Féin MLA Pat Sheehan has rounded on some of those criticising the Executive’s shambolic handling of pandemic restrictions over recent weeks.

Speaking in the Assembly on Monday, the West Belfast MLA said it was “inevitable that anomalies will sometimes appear, mistakes will be made and clarification will be needed” and added: “However, it is disappointing when some prominent people speak out angrily and, sometimes their language is, maybe, not as diplomatic as it ought to be. If we were using similar language, we would be castigated from the high heavens.

“Some of those people may be brilliant musicians, fantastic chefs or people who can run great hospitality businesses, but I would love to see their credentials on public health and dealing with pandemics. I say to everyone that we have a difficult job. Some people are more concerned about their own narrow interests, but political leaders have to take account of society in general...”

Go slow in Irish

It now appears that it will be more than a year after the restoration of devolution before the Irish language act legislation which Sinn Féin said was the key reason for not returning to Stormont for almost three years makes it to the floor of the Assembly.

The delay is curious because the legislation was drafted in January and there is no shortage of Assembly time, with little legislation emanating from the Executive.

Alliance’ Kellie Armstrong asked Communities Minister Caral Ni Chuilin on Monday when the bill to create Irish and Ulster Scots commissioners will come to MLAs.

The Sinn Féin minister did not directly answer the question, saying that it was a matter for Stormont Castle – and she also did not say whether the legislation would be given full Assembly scrutiny or rammed through under accelerated passage, a provision meant to only be used in emergencies.

Later that day Michelle O’Neill said that the pandemic had delayed the legislation but it would be introduced some time “during 2020-21”.

RHI department asks for help

The Stormont department responsible for RHI has appointed consultants to help it improve how it delivers its functions in a changing world.

Department for the Economy permanent secretary Mike Brennan has told colleagues that they need to have difficult conversations with ministers about what it is realistic for them to deliver.

However, the consultants brought in as part of the project, Ernst & Young, have in recent weeks been sharply criticised by the anti-corruption campaign group Spotlight on Corruption, which has urged the government to ban the mega firm from bidding for government contracts because of what it alleges is “recurring professional misconduct” by the company.

When asked if examples of unethical or illegal behaviour were considered before awarding the contract, and whether it was comfortable with the track record of the consultants it has appointed, DfE said that it was “working with Ernst & Young (EY) on a range of research projects informing the response to Covid-19 and is content that EY can play a valuable role in that work.”

Two weeks ago the company told The Guardian: “We work in a highly regulated industry and take our responsibilities extremely seriously. We are committed to adhering to the relevant regulatory and legal standards, as well as the EY Global Code of Conduct, and take action where we find anyone in breach of these standards.”

PSNI drags out Storey probe

More than five months after attending IRA commander Bobby Storey’s huge funeral, the police have still not even agreed a date for interviewing Michelle O’Neill.

Questioned by DUP MLA Mervyn Storey, Ms O’Neill said that she “will be available to the PSNI when it sets a date for a discussion”.

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