Address in Reply to Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:22 pm on 29th November 2004.

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Photo of Lord Laird Lord Laird Crossbench 6:22 pm, 29th November 2004

My Lords, I have noted the remarks of the previous two noble Lords on devolution in Scotland. I want to mention some problems that we have in Northern Ireland which have been brought about by the somewhat unusual political settlement. It is full of good intentions, but from time to time it exposes itself as not being as successful as it might be. I take what I am about to say rather seriously; it is not said lightly. I have provided notice of it to the appropriate Minister.

It is with some regret that I turn to a serious subject that I must bring up in your Lordships' House, because I have tried other methods to highlight the problem to no effect. I refer to the state of affairs in the cross-border body called Waterways Ireland. That agency is in charge of developing and maintaining most of the waterways throughout the island of Ireland. Over the past few months I have come to know quite a lot about the body and I have formed a very high opinion of many members of its staff, of all ranks, on both sides of the border. I am impressed by their quality, understanding and commitment. However, the circumstances in which they operate are dreadful to say the least. Cronyism, bullying and bad management abound. I shall give a few examples.

First, on cronyism, the body's chief executive, John Martin, was told by the sponsoring departments on 2 April 2001 that, as a result of an agreement with the Irish Municipal Public and Civil Trade Union of the 30 March of that year and contained in a letter to the union's secretary general, the directors' posts must be filled by open competition. But in the case of the director of marketing and communications, a post which all of the staff and observers to whom I have talked think was specially created for a friend of John Martin, Mr Martin Dennany, there was no competition. The rules of employment in Northern Ireland were ignored to enable Mr Dennany to obtain the post.

Worse, Mr Martin then reported to the North-South Ministerial Council on 26 June 2002 that the post was filled by open competition. In turn, that was reported to the Northern Ireland Assembly by local Minister Michael McGimpsey on 10 September 2002. I have since been informed in a Written Answer in your Lordships' House that the statement to the Northern Ireland Assembly was incorrect. That point has rightly annoyed former Minister McGimpsey who said in response in the Belfast Telegraph that if he were still the Minister he would be throwing furniture about, and that heads must roll and the posts re-advertised.

Mr Dennany is a well known figure in the Irish political establishment and has previously worked in the Republic's Prime Minister's office. Many believe that it was upon political direction that the post was filled. The chief executive, John Martin, who gave the post to Mr Dennany, claims that the political direction means that he is above the law. That may be a practice in the Republic but the post is in a part of the United Kingdom—Northern Ireland—and is subject, rightly, to strict employment law. The post is also part funded by HMG.

That is only one example of cronyism—there are more. Perhaps one worth noting is that of the director of operations—the number two position. John Martin is accused by my informants of drawing up a job description to suit a Mr Brian D'Arcy and of coaching him for the job. Martin proceeded to chair the panel of appointment and, of course, Mr D'Arcy was selected—again a political appointment.

The worst charge is yet to come; that of staff bullying. The body is paralysed by a culture of alleged bullying and harassment by the chief executive and his senior circle. Allegations by almost 30 staff of all grades up to director level were made in 2001 to the sponsoring departments. Only after considerable pressure did the departments move by setting up an investigation, but that investigation has been carefully limited in its remit and thus will more than likely miss the point. What is required is a full investigation into all these serious allegations. The stories that I have been told are well documented and horrible in the extreme.

The net effect of all these serious management issues is that Waterways Ireland is dysfunctional. The many excellent staff are not encouraged to do their jobs. There are many results of that, but the most serious for the economy of Northern Ireland is occurring in Upper Lough Erne. In Fermanagh, the waterway system and the two large loughs are the main focus of tourism. Many visit the area from all over the world and delight in the boating, sailing, fishing and so on, on Lough Erne. As it currently stands, without quick action the tourism trade next year will be badly damaged by Waterways Ireland's failure to tackle the green weed problem this year. I have received representations from those in the area who are commercially interested in tourism and who are most concerned.

Unless Waterways Ireland takes its responsibility seriously and destroys or cuts the green weeds, there will be no boating next year. Waterways Ireland refuses to undertake that task. Yet as in the case of many other issues that is its duty. Each year, its budget is not spent and millions are returned to the respective governments, so there is not a lack of funding. Also all staff posts are still not filled even after five years of existence. The total management picture is one of failure and incompetence. The spending of money is mismanaged.

I am calling for the suspension of chief executive John Martin until a full investigation into the many allegations of bullying, cronyism and mismanagement has taken place and reported upon. I also call on the Government to ensure that there is no question of the director of corporate services being removed from his post in the meantime. I urge movement quickly before key people leave the organisation and the problem grows.

I should point out that I shall return again and again to this topic until the many who keep me informed and I are satisfied. I am known to be mono-minded. The Northern Ireland department to whom Waterways Ireland reports is the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. By anyone's book, those are delightful areas to administer, raising the morale of people in Northern Ireland, putting back self-confidence and developing a feel-good factor in which political arrangements can be supported.

The truth is different. Over the past two years, the department has run out of control. Sad to say, it responds only to the Irish Government's bidding and that is usually to help some disguised encroachment by Dublin. They fought every positive idea that the language body had when I was the co-chairman. There was no support, no consultation and no offer of help in achieving targets. We were left with the idea that the department simply did not want us to do anything. Now DCAL has turned its attention to dismantling one of its greatest successes, the Northern Ireland Events company. That company has funded 108 events since 2002 alone at a cost of just over £5 million and has generated benefits in excess of £31 million for the Province. It has provided good economic sense as well as morale and confidence. Now DCAL has slashed the company's budget to ribbons without consultation and without explanation.

Little support ever came to the company. DCAL officials attended only two of the 108 events to see how successful or otherwise their sponsored company was. All attempts to raise the matter with the Minister have been blocked with no consultation or support. It all sounds too familiar to me.

I ask as a matter of urgency that the role of DCAL is examined and that proposals are put in place to make the department an instrument for good, and not—as now—an organ of despair.

I am not opposed to cross-border bodies because the island of Ireland is small. However, I am not prepared to put up with standards of governance which are not common to any part of the United Kingdom being brought into the United Kingdom; and I am not prepared to be disadvantaged by a political settlement that makes the administration of Northern Ireland worse than before.