Red Sky at night... The triumph of sectarian corruption
For liberals the BBC spotlight programme investigating claims of corruption in the Democratic Unionist Party and the Housing Executive, the body in charge of social housing, must have seemed proof that the society in the North of Ireland had achieved normality, with an independent journalism investigating the executive. Those who thought so have short memories. An earlier investigation into corruption involving Peter Robinson and his family was followed by a mass retreat by the BBC and an apology in the form of a sycophantic TV biography of the great leader.
They were not long in being disappointed again. Within days political uproar was replaced by silence. The DUP saw off the whole issue by deploying an administrative device allowing them to vote down any criticism. Rather than a normal democratic society, what was revealed was uncontrolled corruption, openly operated without shame and with total impunity. Not only does this reveal the nature of an administration whose central principle is the sharing out of sectarian spoils, it also highlights a vicious attack on social housing that lacks any serious opposition and will mean a major rolling back of the housing rights of working class people.
The Spotlight documentary focused on a construction company called Red Sky, although there were also suggestions that double glazing specifications had been changed by Nelson McCausland to advantage a DUP donor company and that he had misled the executive and the public in general by claiming a meeting held just before the decision had been with an industrial body rather than the company and that records had been changed to support this claim.
The BBC claims were not the first. Allegations of corruption had been in the public sphere for some time, largely as a result of the efforts of the investigative website The Detail. However the inclusion of the testimony of a number of whistleblowers served to reinforce the claims. The most dramatic of these new witnesses was Jenny Palmer, a Lisburn DUP councillor who had been nominated by the party to sit on the NIHE board. She says that prior to a meeting of the broad in July 2011 to confirm the cancellation of the contract with Red Sky she was contacted by the special advisor to DUP social development minister Nelson McCausland instructing her to vote in favour of the request by the minister to delay cancellation. When she objected and cited the evidence exposing the fraudulent activities of Red Sky she was told, “The party comes first. You do what you’re told.”
This was not the first effort by the DUP to influence the NIHE over the Red Sky contract. Four months earlier when the then minister, the SDLP’s Alex Attwood, announced the decision to cancel the Red Sky’s £8 million-a-year contract, a senior DUP delegation met with NIHE officials. This delegation was led by party leader and First Minister Peter Robinson and included east Belfast assembly members Robin Newton and Sammy Douglas. A minute of this meeting records claims by Robinson that the decision to terminate the Red Sky contract “reflected a sectarian bias on behalf of the Housing Executive” and that nationalists in west Belfast had orchestrated a campaign against the company. He also warned the Housing Executive officials they could expect an enquiry into the decision to terminate the Red Sky contract after the assembly elections.
In June 2011 there was a private meeting between the DUP and representatives of Red Sky. The DUP delegation was once again led by Peter Robinson and included the new social development minister Nelson McCausland. Despite Red Sky being in administration, and technically under new ownership, none of the administrators were at the meeting. A minute reveals that the discussion focused on how a new company, but comprising the same owners and management, could take over the contacts that had been removed from Red Sky.
Three days after this meeting Nelson McCausland requested that the NIHE delay the decision to terminate the Red Sky. McCausland implemented the DUP threat to investigate the executive. In July 2012 he made a statement to the Assembly on a report he had commissioned from chartered accountants ASM Howarth alleging widespread mismanagement within the NIHE. Four days before the minister’s statement it emerged that the chairman of the Housing Executive had resigned.
It is clear that the DUP was determined to defend Red Sky and to intimidate and punish those officials who it viewed as doing the company harm. Given the evidence against Red Sky the DUP couldn’t have believed that they were defending the integrity of the company. The Spotlight programme cited numerous examples of poor workmanship; overcharging and charging for work not done (practices which would certainly constitute fraud). It also made claims about the corruption of public officials with a former Red Sky manager alleging that the company was making cash payments to three maintenance officers in the NIHE. And these are just a faction of the claims about Red Sky. Reports stretching back over a decade document the many problems with the company. In 2005, the NIHE discovered that Red Sky had overcharged for maintenance work, which was either unsatisfactory or had not been carried out at all. In 2000, it was alerted that one of its staff members had a close relationship with a director of Spectrum (later to become Red Sky) and had accepted “excessive hospitality” from the company, including holidaying at an apartment in the US and going on a Caribbean cruise. In 2005, it was discovered that another NIHE employee was accepting the hospitality of a Red Sky director in exchange for inflating work orders for the company. In 2006, a member of the NIHE Audit Committee, which was investigating overpayments, resigned and was appointed chairman of the Red Sky Group a month later. In 2009 a NIHE official in west Belfast raised concerns over the unsatisfactory nature of cleaning contract work carried out by Red Sky.
Long trail of scandals
This long trail of scandals reveals not only the shady practices of Red Sky but also the degree to which they were accommodated by the NIHE. It points to a broader scandal within the NIHE in which Red Sky were the worst but not the only offenders. In September 2012, an Audit Office report found “serious weaknesses” in NIHE’s management of the £200m paid to private contractors for maintenance work. In his latest report (July 2013) the Auditor General estimated overpayments of £18m to four contractors. He also noted that despite being aware of over payments the NIHE had done little to address the problem and that inspection reports from its own Corporate Assurance Unit (CAU) continued to issue significant numbers of ‘limited’ and ‘unacceptable’ opinions. Out of a total of 26 housing districts inspected by CAU between 2011 and 2013 nearly two thirds (62%) had the standard of their contract inspection work judged as either limited or unacceptable.
While some commentators see the Red Sky scandal as falling outside the usual sectarian framework of politics in the North the reality is that it is completely motivated by sectarianism. The DUP came to the defence of Red Sky because they viewed it as a "protestant company" that was being cut off from the patronage of the state. The only defence they can offer is that all the other companies are engaged in similar practices. But corruption doesn't matter - the only thing that matters is that the resources of the state, in this case in the form of contracts, are distributed in the “right” proportion and the sectarian status quo is maintained (over half of DUP MLAs employ their relatives in public positions). This also explains the muted response of Sinn Fein to the scandal. They too are locked into this system and do not want to press things to a point where it would become destabilising. It is also the reason there has been no police investigation despite evidence that serious crimes have been committed.
The principle of sectarian share-out
The DUP sees the waterfall of kickbacks and patronage as the main benefits of office and as a payment for agreeing to sit in government with Sinn Fein. It would be bad enough if it stopped there but it does not. Last year the archbigot McCausland struck a deal with Sinn Fein on the Girdwood barracks site in North Belfast. It replaced the principle of housing on the basis of need with the principle of sectarian share-out independent of need. With background silence from Sinn Fein McCausland has unveiled proposals for the future of public housing, in which the Housing executive will be abolished and district committees will take on responsibility for the building, maintenance and allocation of housing. The proposals amount to a mass privatisation of housing and a structure that will inevitably lead to sectarian patronage in the allocation of housing.
It was savage discrimination in housing that sparked of the Northern explosion 45 years ago. Then a whole range of working class organisations stood in opposition to the sectarian state. Today there is disquiet from many housing bodies, but they are tied into the system of grants and patronage that dominates civic society. The degeneration of the trade unions is evidenced by the fact that they have nothing to say about the executive proposals other than to weakly beg for guarantees of continued employment for their members. Sinn Fein, once the opposition, expect enormous gains for themselves in terms of patronage.
The promises of the peace process have proved fraudulent. We continue to live through the carnival of reaction predicted by Connolly. Now more than ever we need a movement to set forth the interests of the working class and to oppose sectarianism and the colonial framework on which it rests.