Northern Ireland news

Security concerns raised over use of private emails at Stormont

Burned: The Inside Story of the 'Cash-for-Ash' Scandal and Northern Ireland's Secretive New Elite is written by News Letter political editor Sam McBride
Connla Young

CYBER-SECURITY concerns have been raised over the use of private email accounts by politicians and officials at Stormont.

Burned: The Inside Story of the ‘Cash for Ash' Scandal and Northern Ireland's Secretive New Elite, tells the inside story of the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

The political fall-out led to the collapse of the assembly in January 2017.

Author Sam McBride discusses in the book how some DUP and Sinn Féin politicians “shunned departmental email addresses” in favour of private accounts.

“Keeping their emails– the life blood of modern government business – off government servers removed control of that information from the department to themselves or their party,” he wrote.

Mr McBride, political editor at the News Letter, claims that civil servants also forwarded information from secure Blackberry devices to personal email accounts so they could view them on home computers

He suggests that “what ministers and officials were doing was contrary to Stormont security protocols, which deliberately locked down access to such information outside the office to secure devices”.

The author added that “Stormont's amateurish approach to data security was particularly significant not just because it was handling an annual budget of around £20 billion but because it was increasingly interacting with foreign governments and companies”.

He points out that ministers and officials regularly travelled to China, “a state accused by the British government of being responsible for sophisticated state-sponsored cyberspying – to negotiate lucrative financial investments.”

The journalist highlights that concerns have been raised by a leading security expert.

“Professor Anthony Glees, director of the University of Buckingham's Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies and a member of advisory board of the Oxford Intelligence Group, said that what had been going on was ‘totally astonishing' and that it ‘certainly affects our national security given the important role that Northern Ireland politics and politicians now play in our national life'."

Meanwhile, Mr McBride has estimated that the total cost of the public inquiry into the RHI controversy, which began in January 2017, is more than £14m.

“With the inquiry itself costing in the region of £6 million, and allowing for other smaller public sector costs, the entire inquiry process cost taxpayers more than £14 million,” he wrote.

The inquiry is currently in the process of finalising its report.

Mr McBride reveals that senior counsel were paid £200 an hour while a junior counsel or a solicitor advocate were paid £100.

A solicitor (partner) received £146 an hour while a solicitor (assistant) earned £130. A paralegal or trainee solicitor was paid £65 an hour.

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