While the Stormont Executive understandably moved early to show that they were initiating change in an area that received so much criticism in the wake of RHI, the reforms are far from extensive writes David Whelan.
It was not surprising that, given the scale of the RHI crisis, a reformed Northern Ireland Executive would seek to regain some public confidence in the workings of government through a reformed code for special advisors.
What was surprising was that the decision was taken in advance of the now published but much delayed RHI inquiry report which it was thought would serve as a basis on which to initiate much needed changes.
The outworkings of the inquiry into the failings around RHI served to open up to the public the previously unknown or interesting world of the daily workings of government, most notably the role, power and influence of unelected and therefore unaccountable special advisors, of which Northern Ireland boasts a significant number compared relatively to neighbouring governments.
The New Code of Conduct was published by Finance Minister Conor Murphy on 20 January and key initiatives such as introducing salary caps and giving greater weight to the Department of Finance in the appointment process were welcomed, however, underneath these headlines it appears that beyond the moral obligation to divert away from the previous way of working, little change had been enforced.
Most of the changes are mundane and outlined requirements, which, outside of Stormont, would be considered common practice. For example, the new code stipulates a requirement for SPADs to work to serve the Executive as a whole, not simply their own minister. How such a directive could be policed remains to be seen but it is far from a radical expectation within a power-sharing executive.
Similarly, the code spells out ministerial responsibility for the management, conduct and discipline of their special advisors, a direct response to Arlene Foster’s claims that she was “accountable but…not responsible” for her former SPAD Andrew Crawford.
A recurring theme throughout the inquiry was that some SPADs were working to direction given by the party and not always that of the individual minister, with obvious room for ambiguity. While the new code seeks to address this, it does little in the way to prevent a similar occurrence but for spelling out a level of accountability placed on the relevant minister.
In the same vein, the code does little to prevent the practice, highlighted in the report, of circumventing the rules on special advisors and those now coined ‘super SPADs’. These in essence were unofficial advisors, overseeing all of a party’s SPADs but operating outside the code of conduct.
One thing that is clear is the direction for SPADs to keep minutes and use official email accounts. The use of personal email addresses by some SPADs and the absence of minute taking, by both SPADs and the civil service, for some meetings was a recognised obstacle to freedom of information requests. Similarly, SPADs must now publish their meeting with external organisations, as well as any gifts and hospitality received. Most importantly, SPADs will be required to declare any conflicts of interest. Such a measure should make SPADs more accountable and transparent.
TUV MLA Jim Allister has been one of the most vocal critics of the lack of enforcement powers within the code, which essentially are the same terms and conditions for the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Allister pre-empted the publication of the code by launching his own Private Members Bill in a bid to impose greater sanctions on SPADs who breach the code.
“You can have all the codes you like, you can have all the fine decorations and guidance and everything else, but at the end of the day it’s only legislation that makes things change,” he said.
Allister highlighted that the new code would have no justiciability in the courts and no independent enforcement mechanism but is hoping to change this by putting the rules on a statutory footing.
The MLA was one of the few voices who spoke when the Code was debated and subsequently agreed to by all parties in the Executive. Undoubtedly, the move sought to pre-empt the RHI inquiry report prior to the appointment of SPADs at the turn of the year. Whether the code will now be updated as a result of Sir Patrick Coghlin’s report remains to be seen but a move not to initiate changes following a major and costly public inquiry would undoubtedly invite criticism.
Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs
Beattie grew up on a family farm near Newtownstewart. Prior to being appointed special advisor for the DUP’s Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots, he worked in the DUP’s European Office under then MEP Diane Dodds as an agricultural researcher.
McGinley was previously Sinn Féin’s group leader on Mid Ulster Council, having been elected in 2014 but has stood down from the role to take up the special advisor post under Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey.
Former MLA and Junior Minister in the Executive Office Ross, worked as both a parliamentary researcher and in the party’s press office before being elected to the Assembly in 2007. In 2017 he didn’t seek re-election to become one of 10 UK Electoral Commissioners but has now returned as a special advisor for Economy Minister Diane Dodds.
A councillor on Ards and North Down Borough Council, and a lecturer in Economics and Leadership at Belfast Metropolitan College, Martin has been appointed as special advisor to Education Minister Peter Weir.
Rooney, a party policy worker has returned as a special advisor in the Department of Finance to work with Minister Conor Murphy. Rooney previously served as a special advisor in the same Department under Sinn Féin’s Máirtín Ó Muilleoir.
Health Minister Robin Swann has appointed Mark Ovens, a member of the Ulster Unionist Party’s policy team and long-time servant of the party.
A Derry-native, McCamphill previously served as the SDLP’s head of campaigns before quitting the party to work for the Scottish National Party in London. She was chief of staff for Westminster SNP leader Ian Blackford before being appointed by Nichola Mallon as her special advisor in infrastructure.
The Alliance Party’s Head of Policy began her career in politics as research assistant to MLA Judith Cochrane before serving as a Senior Parliamentary Assistant to Naomi Long during her time as an MP and has served as the party’s Head of Policy since December 2017 and has now joined Long again as her special advisor in Justice.
The Executive Office
Senior Sinn Féin official McGlade is a long-term party activist. McGlade is a key member of Sinn Féin’s government formation negotiating team in the Republic of Ireland and previously played a leading role in the 2016 election campaign.
Previously elected as an MLA in 1998 for Upper Bann, O’Hagan previously served in the same role as a special advisor to the late Martin McGuinness.
Loughran is also returning to his role, having previously advised Michelle O’Neill.
Weir is a former hospital doctor and councillor in Craigavon. He has previously served as a special advisor in the department of Health and will now advise Arlene Foster.
The Former MP and MLA has returned to her role in advising the DUP’s leader, having previously served as a special advisor to both Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson. Little-Pengelly lost her seat at the recent Westminster election, freeing her up to take up the position advising Arlene Foster.
Originally elected to Mid Ulster Council in 2014, Ashton Chaired the Council in 2018 and has now been appointed as the DUP’s advisor in the Executive Office.