Assembly scrutinises special adviser

Caption: ©Press Eye Ltd - Northern Ireland 22 October 2009. Mandatory Credit - Matt Mackey /  Presseye.com 

The scene where Police are investigating reports of an explosion near a Territorial Army base in north Belfast.
Police said members of the public reported hearing a bang in the Ashfield Crescent area off the Antrim Road between 0130-0200 BST on Thursday. 
Nelson McCausland, MLA talks to the press. A Social Development Committee evidence session gives an insight into the work of a special adviser.

In an unusual move, an Executive special adviser has discussed their work in an appearance before an Assembly committee. Stephen Brimstone advises DUP Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland. He gave evidence to the Social Development Committee’s inquiry into allegations raised in last July’s BBC Spotlight programme.

Representatives of Turkington Holdings held a meeting with Minister McCausland to discuss a major double glazing contract in early 2012. References to Turkingtons were subsequently changed to the Glass and Glazing Federation.

The DUP’s opponents claim that the name was changed to hide the relationship between the company and the party. Company director Trevor Turkington has supported the DUP by nominating Stephen Moutray as an election candidate in Upper Bann. According to Jim Allister, the company funded vans used in the 2004 European election campaign.

The DUP maintains that this was an honest mistake and no wrongdoing took place. Brimstone denies instructing an official to change documents and explained that an adviser has no powers to instruct officials.

Appearing on 9 January, Brimstone said that he had been approached by a Turkington Holdings representative who said that the company could deliver the contract “with significant savings to the public purse.” He met company representatives on 25 January 2012 in the Radisson Blu Hotel in Belfast. This was a “listening exercise” and he did not take notes.

His impression was that Turkingtons would write “on behalf of the Glass and Glazing Federation asking for a meeting with the Minister”. He accepted that he was copied into an email about the planned meeting on 22 February 2012 which referred only to Turkington Holdings. Brimstone was at work on that day but says that he never read the email.

The meeting took place on 16 April 2012 and Brimstone said that, at the time, he believed that the Turkingtons staff were representing the federation.

Questioned by Sinn Féin MLA Mickey Brady, he said that he had “no contact in a party political sense … and no contact socially” with company representatives. He added that he met them previously as a special adviser to discuss Marlborough House, a public sector property in Craigavon.

The briefing paper for the April 2012 meeting mentions Turkingtons but not the Glass and Glazing Federation. Brimstone maintained that he was not involved in the drafting of that document and had not seen it in advance.

He remarked: “Between party business in the morning and preparing the Minister for questions for oral answer, I did not have a chance that week to look at that week’s folder, which would have held the submissions for that week.”

Documents refer to Turkingtons up to 16 May 2012, when the references were changed to the Glass and Glazing Federation.

Chairman Alex Maskey put it to him that “you did not see the email, you did not read the letter, and you did not read the briefing in your role as a special adviser, despite all the public attention, Assembly inquiries, this committee writing and all of that?”

Brimstone replied: “I have never seen this email, Chair, or I would have seen the document attached to it. Anybody will confirm that, until recently, I was cc’d into hundreds of emails and it was impossible to read them.”

Brimstone said that he had “no knowledge of who party supporters are or are not”. Instead, he said that this was a matter for the party officers. At present, these are Peter Robinson, Nigel and Diane Dodds, Maurice Morrow, William McCrea, Michelle McIlveen, Arlene Foster and Gregory Campbell.

The questioning in the committee was mainly carried out by Mickey Brady, Jim Allister, Fra McCann and Stewart Dickson. Sammy Wilson supported Brimstone’s version of events and has dismissed the inquiry as “politically motivated”.

The DUP has, though, taken the inquiry seriously by putting Wilson and Gregory Campbell on to the committee to rebut the claims. The inquiry is continuing and, to date, has also heard evidence from Turkingtons and officials from the Department for Social Development and Housing Executive.

Separately, Brimstone has undertaken to make a public apology to DUP councillor Jenny Palmer: the whistle-blower whose claims were the main focus of the Spotlight programme. A statement was drafted after Palmer and Brimstone met Peter Robinson last August and she had expected it to be released in the following week. The DUP has rejected the BBC’s claims and also declined to comment on why the apology has not yet been published.

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