Fermanagh and Omagh District Council are continuing to press for answers as to how the PSNI reversed its position not to charge for the escorting of explosives for the mining industry.

Correspondence from the Minister for Justice, Naomi Long, was discussed at the recent Policy and Resources Committee meeting, where it was contended there is a “tacit implication” neither she nor her Department were involved or contacted on a matter which could have “extortionate budgetary implications”.

The Council had sought clarification on whether a feasibility study or financial impact assessment had been undertaken around the public bearing the costs of escorting of explosives and associated duties, as opposed to private companies availing of these services from the PSNI.

The Minister’s response pointed out that escorting civil explosives is a PSNI operational matter, and therefore enquiries should be sent to the Chief Constable.

Councillor Emmet McAleer, Independent, told members: “It appears the Minister’s advisers have misinterpreted our questions.

“This is not an operational matter, but a reasonable question on a strategic management policy with a very significant impact on the entire regional sector budget.

“Such a significant policy change must be open to public scrutiny. It’s not only our right, it’s our responsibility as a council to undertake such scrutiny, and uphold transparency and accountability.”

He proposed writing again to the Chief Constable, the Northern Ireland Office, the new Secretary of State, the Policing Board and the Minister for Justice “to re-ask our questions and see why we can’t get answers”.

Opposing this, Ulster Unionist Councillor Howard Thornton said: “This has [been] bandied about for months on end, writing the same questions to the same people, getting nowhere, wasting everybody’s time. This is a fruitless exercise until the report is provided by the PSNI.

“Once we get that, obviously, follow-up action can take place. Policing is an operational matter for the Chief Constable, not the Policing Board, nor the Secretary of State, or anybody else.

“I don’t agree to any further letters until we get the report.”

Seconding Councillor McAleer’s proposal, Councillor Donal O’Cofaigh, CCLA, agreed the Minister for Justice may have misunderstood the question as “this isn’t an operational matter, as it’s far more strategic with implications for funding”.

Independent Councillor Josephine Deehan told members: “Unfortunately, we haven’t got the answers we rightly seek.

“We need clarification on what appears to be a major policy change in terms of charging private goldmining companies for explosives escorting.

“This change has huge financial implications and we in local government must ensure accountability in expenditure of public resources, particularly given the many challenges facing us in the health and social care sector, and many others.

“It’s unacceptable for huge amounts of public resources to be spent in this way, and [we] deserve an explanation for this apparent policy change.”

But Ulster Unionist Councillor John McClaughry, who originally informed members this was a policy change, which a Freedom of Information request established was incorrect as there never was a policy, said: “It’s quite strange to have this proposal again.

“It’s not too many months ago the Local Democracy correspondent was told there was no policy. We were later sent that information.

“So now we’re back to the policy we were told wasn’t a policy. It’s the same old thing, and I think it’s a waste of time.”

The matter went to a vote, which passed 15 to 11, with one abstention.