Queen’s University has “paused” an honorary degree it chose to award to someone involved in a Stormont scandal, after questions about the decision were asked by the Belfast Telegraph.
Last week, an individual contacted the sister newspaper of the Irish Independent to express concern at the university’s judgment in lauding former Phoenix Natural Gas chief executive Peter Dixon.
Twelve years ago, Mr Dixon had a key role in the NI Water scandal, prompting the only demotion of a permanent secretary in the history of the Northern Ireland Civil Service.
Mr Dixon was one of three members of an ‘independent review team’ set up by Paul Priestly, then the permanent secretary of the Department for Regional Development (now the Department for Infrastructure) to look into alleged irregularities in how NI Water awarded contracts.
Unlike the other members of the team, Mr Dixon did not charge for his work, and it was alleged that he was friends with the chief executive of NI Water, Laurence MacKenzie — a potential conflict of interest because of the breakdown in relations between Mr MacKenzie and many of his board.
NI Water directors were sacked on foot of the inquiry with which Mr Dixon was involved, but subsequent evidence saw Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) raise serious questions about how the review team had operated.
When those issues were raised by three MLAs — Patsy McGlone, John Dallat and Dawn Purvis — at a hearing of the PAC, Mr Dixon wrote a furious letter to the committee in which he said: “I deeply resent the disgraceful line of questioning by John Dallat MLA, Patsy McGlone MLA and Dawn Purvis MLA, who sought to insinuate that there was an improper relationship between Laurence MacKenzie and me.”
He said he was “appalled and upset” at what had been said, and added: “I greatly resent the questioning at the PAC by the same three MLAs which sought to impugn the professionalism, ethics and integrity of the members of the IRT. This was nothing short of disgraceful.”
Mr Dixon made an explicit threat to the MLAs who had been doing their jobs, telling them: “In closing, be assured that if I can establish that legal proceedings are open to me, on a purely personal basis, I will have no hesitation in taking them.”
As it happened, Mr Dixon’s legal threats were limp because MLAs are covered by privilege when they speak in the Assembly. It later transpired that Mr Priestly had drafted the letter for Mr Dixon to send.
The committee said: “The fact that Mr Priestly — the principal witness and the person required to set an example to the many public officials under his direction — had a role in preparing this letter was utterly disgraceful”.
Mr Priestly was subsequently demoted, although did not seem to lose financially, and Mr Dixon’s then chairman at Phoenix, Sir Gerry Loughran, wrote to the committee to apologise, saying that “the PAC members were pursuing perfectly legitimate questions…this was a proper line of questioning by the committee”.
He said that Mr Dixon had felt “aggrieved” at the questioning, but that he wanted to withdraw his letter of complaint.
When asked why Mr Dixon had been chosen for such an honour and whether he or anyone associated with him had made donations to Queen’s, the university said: “Peter Dixon was nominated for an honorary degree for his services to business, education and charity.
“The honorary degrees committee recommended Mr Dixon’s nomination for approval by Senate, and it was ratified in March 2020.
“Due to personal circumstances which have been discussed between the university and Mr Dixon in the past week, it has been agreed that the awarding of an honorary degree will be paused.
“Peter Dixon has not made any personal donations to Queen’s University. Phoenix Natural Gas is an industrial partner on the CASE-funded decarbonisation of heat project and has donated to a previous Riddel Hall campaign.”
Mr McGlone, one of those attacked by Mr Dixon in his letter for doing his job, said: “I would have thought that Queen’s University would have thought long and hard and researched to make sure that those who were getting honorary doctorates fully merited such a title.
“As a former member of PAC who sat through the full scrutiny of NI Water along with other colleagues, including my late colleague John Dallat, I would have thought that someone who conspired to subvert the scrutiny mechanisms of the PAC and its democratic accountability wouldn’t have met such criteria.”
Phoenix Natural Gas declined to say how much money it had given to Queen’s, describing the information as “commercially confidential”. However, it said that it had “partnered with Queen’s University on two specific initiatives in a period spanning over 20 years. While the interaction with Queen’s University has been limited, both initiatives have been part of a much broader responsible business programme, aligned to core business objectives”.
It said that it “participated in a recently published CASE-funded study, the details of which are helping to advance decarbonisation solutions for key sectors across the NI economy. Phoenix were also one of many local organisations who worked with Queen’s University on a previous Riddel Hall campaign”.
Mr Dixon was invited to comment, but at the time of going to press, there had been no response.