Northern Ireland

Former DUP ministers breached Stormont code of conduct over North-South ministerial council boycott

Former Alliance MLA Patrick Brown also found to have breached MLA code of conduct following standards investigation

Education Minister Paul Givan said he hoped to receive more funding in the June monitoring round
Former Stormont First Minister Paul Givan. PICTURE: PA (Liam McBurney/PA)

Five DUP MLAs have been found to have breached Stormont’s ministerial code of conduct for boycotting the North South Ministerial Council in protest at the Irish Sea border.

Stormont’s Committee on Standards and Privileges investigated a complaint made against the then-ministers in September 2021 when they failed to attend meetings of the cross-border body.

Then-First Minister Paul Givan and ministers Gordon Lyons, Michelle McIlveen, Edwin Poots, and Gary Middleton, were found by the independent Assembly Commissioner for Standards, Dr Melissa McCullough, to have breached the code of conduct in a report published on Friday.

At the time of the complaints, the DUP were boycotting Stormont over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which was agreed by the UK and the EU in their 2019 Brexit deal.

Five DUP ministers were named as respondents in the court case, First Minister Paul Givan, junior minister at the Executive Office Gary Middleton, Education Minister Michelle McIlveen, Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots and Economy Minister Gordon Lyons
The DUP failed to attend meetings of the North South Ministerial Council in 2021, while boycotting power-sharing over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Standards and privileges committee chair, Sinn Féin’s Carál Ní Chuilín, said the report “explains how it is a matter for the Assembly to consider whether any sanctions should be imposed on the respondents”

A separate report was also published regarding a complaint made in April 2021 against Mr Lyons - who at that stage was a junior minister - for failing to attend a sitting of the North South Language Body.

The standards commissioner found Mr Lyons had breached the ministerial code of conduct in his actions.

The Irish News approached the DUP for comment.

In October of 2021, the DUP’s boycott of the North South Ministerial Council was found in a High Court ruling to be an unlawful breach of the pledge of office.

Meanwhile, former Alliance MLA Patrick Brown has been found to have breached the Assembly Members’ Code of Conduct in relation to his correspondence with a Co Down school.

Mr Brown, who resigned his South Down seat in April over what he said at the time were “personal reasons”, was the subject of a complaint to the commissioner by the principal of Newcastle’s Shimna Integrated College and the chair of the school’s board of governors.

Alliance MLA Patrick Brown has resigned
Former Alliance MLA Patrick Brown. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Brown - who had applied to become a Department of Education (DE) governor at the school - had himself made a complaint to Shimna on behalf of constituents.

The committee report states Mr Brown was found to have breached the MLA code of conduct “when he conflated his own personal interest with the public interest and failed to address the conflict of interest in favour of the latter”.

He was also found to have breached the code by not disclosing his relationship with a current Shimna governor. The report said Mr Brown was responsible for failing to disclose that he knew the governor and that his relationship with her “included sharing information relating to his own DE governor application”.

The commissioner stated in the report: “It is my view that Dr Brown did not disclose the fact that he was sharing information with and receiving information from because he knew it was inappropriate.”

Mr Brown was also found to have breached Assembly rules by using his MLA letterhead in complaint correspondence “to improperly confer an advantage for himself”.

Ms Ní Chuilín said following the upholding of four of eight total allegations against him, “the Committee would have recommended an appropriate sanction to the Assembly had Dr Brown remained an MLA”.

In a statement, Shimna principal Steve Pagan thanked the standards commissioner “for her scrupulous guidance throughout this process” and the committee “for its comprehensive investigation”.