Northern Ireland

Damning reports were withheld because of purdah while executive ministers made numerous pre-election announcements

The public bodies’ reports examined the failure to investigate planning fraud and separately found DUP ministers breached their code of conduct

DUP leader Edwin Poots (right) during a press conference at Stormont with then first minister designate Paul Givan after announcing his first ministerial team
Edwin Poots and Paul Givan were found to have breached the ministerial code

Damning reports published in the midst of last week’s intensive election coverage were withheld during the preceding campaign due to their potentially sensitive content, it has emerged.

A total of five reports from the Audit Office and the assembly’s Standards and Privileges Committee were published last Friday while most journalists were either preoccupied with election coverage or resting after an arduous night covering counts.

The Audit Office issued two reports – a review of regional waste management and a joint report with the local government auditor that examined the failure by public bodies to proactively investigate allegations of planning fraud, involving more than 100 applications for livestock sheds and almost 3,500 falsified soil samples.

The latter report highlighted widespread inertia and buck-passing between the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and nine councils, which it said “treated the matter with varying levels of seriousness”.

The Standards and Privileges Committee released three reports in all, two of which centred on DUP ministers’ breaches of the ministerial code by failing to attend North-South Ministerial Council (NSMC) meetings in 2021.

The third dealt with the conduct of former Alliance MLA Patrick Brown, who stood down from the assembly in April.

The DUP ministers – Paul Givan, Gordon Lyons, Michelle McIlveen, Gary Middleton and Edwin Poots – had claimed scheduling issues were to blame for their non-attendance.

However, Commissioner for Standards Melissa McCullough concluded there was a “clear and publicly stated intention by the DUP to disengage with the NSMC including non-attendance at NSMC meetings”.

An Audit Office report highlighted inertia and buck-passing between the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and nine councils

The timing of the reports’ publication meant the issues highlighted failed to gain the widespread coverage they would ordinarily be afforded.

The Audit Office and Standards and Privileges Committee is expected to adhere to purdah rules, which constrain what actions public servants can undertake during the pre-election period in case it influences voting behaviour.

There was criticism of the executive parties in the days running up to polling day last week for making a series of positive announcements that it was claimed may have breached purdah guidelines.

In May, First Minister Michelle O’Neill blamed the pre-election period for delaying the Programme for Government.

An Audit Office spokesperson said that during purdah its work would “potentially be subject to increased scrutiny and political sensitivity”.

It said the reports were made available in advance of the assembly’s summer recess, which began on Saturday July 6.

A spokesperson for the assembly said there was a duty to publish reports “as soon as reasonably practicable”.

“The committee therefore agreed that these reports should be published as soon as the pre-election period had ended,” the spokesperson said.

SDLP Opposition leader Matthew O’Toole again accused executive ministers of last week “breaking long-standing convention prohibiting political announcements”.

“Their behaviour has been made worse by the fact that damaging news stories from the Standards and Privileges Committee and the Audit Office were held back because those bodies rightly respected the rules,” the SDLP MLA said.

“We have written to the head of the civil service about what happened and have sought a clear explanation for ministers using the trappings of their office to flout the rules that everyone else abides by.”