Queen’s University has ‘paused’ an honorary doctorate it chose to award to someone involved in a Stormont scandal after questions about the decision were raised by the Belfast Telegraph.
Last week, a person contacted the Irish Independent’s sister newspaper to express concerns about the university’s judgment of former Phoenix Natural Gas chief executive Peter Dixon’s praise.
Twelve years ago, Mr Dixon played a key role in the NI Water scandal, leading to 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 of Regional Development (now the Department of Infrastructure) to investigate alleged irregularities in the way NI Water awarded contracts.
Unlike the other members of the team, Mr. Dixon charged no fees for his work, and it was alleged that he was friends with NI Water’s director Laurence MacKenzie – a potential conflict of interest due to the severed relations between Mr. MacKenzie and many of his board.
NI Water directors were fired over the investigation involving Mr. Dixon, but subsequent evidence led Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to raise serious questions about how the review team had worked.
When these issues were raised by three MLAs – Patsy McGlone, John Dallat and Dawn Purvis – at a PAC hearing, Mr Dixon wrote an outraged letter to the committee saying, “I deeply regret the disgraceful manner of interrogation by John Dallat MLA, Patsy McGlone MLA and Dawn Purvis MLA, who attempted to insinuate that there was an inappropriate relationship between Laurence MacKenzie and me.”
He said he was “shocked and upset” by what had been said, adding: “I am deeply annoyed by the interrogation at the PAC by the same three MLAs who have compromised the professionalism, ethics and integrity of the members of the IRT. wanted to cast doubt on this, this was downright outrageous.”
Dixon made an explicit threat to the MLAs who had done their job, telling them, “Finally, rest assured that if I can determine that legal proceedings are open to me, on a purely personal basis, I will not hesitate to take. ”
Coincidentally, Mr. Dixon’s legal threats were flimsy, as MLAs are privileged when they speak in the Assembly. It later transpired that Mr. Priestly had drafted the letter that Mr. Dixon was to send.
The commission said: “The fact that Mr Priestly – the key witness and the person who was to set an example for the many officials under his leadership – played a role in the drafting of this letter was utterly disgraceful”.
Mr Priestly was subsequently demoted, although he did not appear to be losing money financially, and the then chairman of Mr Dixon in Phoenix, Sir Gerry Loughran, wrote to the committee to apologize, saying that “the PAC members had perfectly legitimate questions … of questioning by the commission”.
He said Mr Dixon had felt “disadvantaged” during the interrogation but wanted to withdraw his letter of complaint.
When asked why Mr. Dixon had been chosen for such an honor and whether he or anyone associated with him had made any donations to Queen’s, the university said: “Peter Dixon was nominated for an honorary doctorate for his services to business, education and charity.
“The Honorary Doctorate Committee recommended Mr. Dixon’s nomination for Senate approval, and it was ratified in March 2020.
“Due to personal circumstances discussed between the university and Mr. Dixon over the past week, it has been agreed that the awarding of an honorary doctorate will be paused.
“Peter Dixon has made no personal donations to Queen’s University. Phoenix Natural Gas is an industrial partner in the CASE-funded heat decarbonization 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 Queen’s University would have thought long and hard and researched to ensure that those who received honorary degrees, fully deserved such a title.
“As a former PAC member who, along with other colleagues, including my late colleague John Dallat, passed the full scrutiny of NI Water, I would have thought that someone who colluded to undermine the PAC’s control mechanisms and its democratic accountability would would do’ have not met such criteria.”
Phoenix Natural Gas would not say how much money it had given to Queen’s and described the information as “commercially confidential”. However, it said it “worked with Queen’s University on two specific initiatives over a period of more than 20 years. While interaction with Queen’s University was limited, both initiatives were part of a much broader corporate responsibility program aligned with key business objectives”.
It said it “participated in a recently published CASE-funded study, the details of which are helping to advance decarbonization solutions for key sectors in the NI economy. Phoenix was also one of several local organizations that partnered with Queen’s University on a previous Riddel Hall campaign.”
Mr. Dixon has been invited to comment, but at the time of going to press, there had been no response.