Paul Priestly, permanent secretary of the Department for Regional Development, was suspended pending an investigation into an angry letter sent to a watchdog examining alleged tendering breaches at Northern Ireland (NI) Water.

The Stormont Executive’s press office said in a statement: “The Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Bruce Robinson has suspended Paul Priestly, permanent secretary of the Department for Regional Department pending an investigation into events following the PAC (Public Accounts Committee) hearing on NI Water.”

It added: “The suspension, in accordance with Northern Ireland Civil Service personnel procedures, is for the purpose of facilitating the investigation and is not a disciplinary penalty.”

The suspension is the latest development in a contracts scandal involving NI Water.

Earlier this year four NI Water board members were sacked after it emerged some £28 million in contracts were issued without properly tendering for the work.

The move came as a result of a report by a three-person panel, appointed by Mr Priestly to investigate the situation.

It found contracts had been awarded without the use of competitive tendering, breaching government rules intended to ensure taxpayer value for money.

The panel included Phoenix Energy chief executive Peter Dixon. But when the case came before the Public Accounts Committee last month (July), three members questioned Mr Dixon’s independence.

Although not involved in the hearing, he took offence, describing it in a letter to the committee as “disgraceful”.

Sir Gerry Loughran, chairman of the gas company and a former head of the Northern Ireland civil service, wrote to the committee dismissing Mr Dixon’s words and declaring the questions raised by the committee as ‘reasonable and evidence-based’.

The letter was withdrawn but it has since emerged Mr Priestly allegedly played a part in the drafting of the letter – a potentially serious breach of protocol.

Mr Priestly, who has been in the job for two-and-a-half years and is chief advisor to regional development minister Conor Murphy, has been suspended pending an investigation.

Mr Murphy has since insisted the civil servant is not being made a scapegoat.

He said: “There is no question here of scapegoating anyone. The head of the civil service agreed that the issues surrounding Paul Priestly were such that they merited his suspension and an investigation to be launched and I agree with that and made my views clear on that.”

David Gibbs

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