Analysis: Does Stormont's Spad system spell a lack of accountability?

Arlene Foster said DUP and Sinn Féin spads used a 'brokerage' system

ON many occasions during the RHI inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin has voiced incredulity at the manner in which DUP special advisers operated.

For those familiar with the way Stormont worked for the best part of a decade, the role of spads, especially the six employed by the Executive Office, was widely, if quietly, acknowledged as key in the power-sharing executive.

While this situation was clearly at odds with the democratic values on which devolved government was supposed to be based, there were pragmatic reasons why it prevailed.

Arguably, Jonathan Bell wasn't the only executive minister not entirely suited to the role and while the broad consensus suggests the former Strangford MLA failed most convincingly to fulfil the expectations of his office, we should perhaps be begrudgingly grateful that there were aides and civil servants in the background steering many ministerial decisions.

The emphasis Stormont ministers put on meeting, greeting and getting their picture taken – as well as carrying out constituency work – left little time for getting across policy detail and refining it ahead of implementation.

Mandatory coalition, as Arlene Foster pointed out yesterday, also created its own unique set of problems, which were often overcome with what the former first minister characterised as a "brokerage" system.

This inter-spad arbitration provided the groundwork on submissions and freed up ministers to carry out their duties – ie. meeting, greeting and getting their picture taken.

The handsome salaries the spads received were reflective of their empowered role and for much of the time devolution was in place, this system operated reasonably efficiently.

DUP leader Arlene Foster and former party special advisers John Robinson, Stephen Brimstone and Timothy Johnston

However, the flaw in giving too much autonomy to unelected, political appointees becomes apparent when somebody needs to be held to account for major failings like the RHI scandal.

The uncertainty around who was responsible for certain decisions creates ambiguity around where the buck stops. It blurs accountability and allows ministers who should be answerable for shortcomings in office to lay the blame elsewhere.

Deflecting responsibility to those who aren't elected means ultimately there is no democratic accountability, as a former minister can always claim they were never in possession of all the relevant information. The aides take the flak, shielding the minister from the brunt of public outcry.

On occasions during her oral evidence, Mrs Foster has conceded that things could have been done better and that if the executive is ever to be restored, the spad system needs reformed.

But in addition to her inability to recall key episodes, the recurring theme in the DUP leader's responses is that the spads failed and the system failed but that she did her best under the circumstances.

At some stage, however, a minister must accept responsibility for the actions of their aides, otherwise there is no democratic accountability.

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 Political Correspondent John Manley

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