Parades Commission recruitment under spotlight

The British government was tonight facing demands from nationalist politicians in Northern Ireland for further explanation about its appointment practices for members of the Parades Commission.

The call was made as nationalists also demanded the resignation of commission member Don Mackay, an Orangeman, after it emerged his application had cited an SDLP Assembly member as a referee without ever consulting her.

Assembly member Dolores Kelly said she had only become aware that her name was used as a referee for Mr Mackay when it was raised by the NIO in discussions with officials in her party.

However she could not understand why she was not contacted as a referee before Mr Mackay was appointed to the commission last November.

“I’m amazed no one in the Northern Ireland Office contacted me before he was appointed to such a high profile commission,” the Upper Bann MLA said.

“It doesn’t make sense that a nationalist representative for Portadown, of all places, would nominate a member of the Orange Order to the Parades Commission when our positions on parades, sectarianism and the Drumcree march have been so far apart.

“Don Mackay’s position on the commission is untenable and he should resign.

“I also find it incredible that references were not checked because if you were a dinner lady or a cleaner applying for a job, your referees would be checked.”

There was controversy when Mr Mackay, a former Ulster Unionist councillor who has since joined the DUP, and former Portadown District Master David Burrows were appointed last November by Northern Secretary Peter Hain to the commission which adjudicates on controversial marches in the North.

Nationalist Garvaghy Road residents, who have been locked in an eight-year dispute with Orangemen on the Drumcree parade, are preparing a High Court challenge to the appointment of those men who are members of the Portadown district.

The SDLP, which will raise its concerns about Mr Mackay’s appointment with the Irish Government, today released letters between its Assembly member and the Northern Ireland Office and also the commission member.

In a letter to Mr Hain, Ms Kelly insisted that not only did she not agree to act as a referee, she would never have done so even if she were approached because of the differences of opinion with Mr Mackay on issues like Drumcree.

In a letter to Ms Kelly, the commission member apologised for any difficulty the use of her name as a referee may have caused and offered to meet her.

He explained her name was submitted because they had both served for four years on the Craigavon Borough Council as colleagues and friends.

Mr Mackay was unavailable for comment today on the claims.

But in a statement, it emerged the Northern Ireland Office had not checked the referees for all appointees to the Parades Commission last year.

“Appointments were made on the basis of the candidates successfully displaying competence across a range of areas,” the statement said.

“References were not sought for any of the candidates.

“The appointments process was regulated by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments and an OCPA representative was involved in every stage.”

Sinn Féin Assembly member Gerry Kelly claimed the revelation had thrown the whole appointments process to the Parades Commission into chaos.

The Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition also said it welcomed Ms Kelly’s statement that she did not agree with or support Mr Mackay’s appointment.

“The decision of the GRRC not to meet with the commission pending the outcome of a legal challenge has been vindicated,” spokesman Joe Duffy said.

“We look forward to the NIO’s complete mishandling of this entire debacle being exposed in open court in the coming weeks.”

Ms Kelly’s Assembly colleague, the SDLP’s Alex Attwood said more questions needed to be answered, with the biggest questions falling to the Northern Ireland Office to respond.

“It must have occurred to the NIO that a prominent Orangeman, giving the name of a prominent SDLP representative as a referee for membership of the Parades Commission does not stack up and is downright questionable,” the West Belfast MLA said.

“The appointment process continued without any verification of the content of an application. What was going on in the NIO?”

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