Northern Ireland news

Assembly speaker under fire for blocking spin doctor job debate

Martin McGuinness said the controversy surrounding David Gordon's appointment was a 'two day wonder'. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

THE assembly speaker has been criticised for refusing to allow debate about Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness's controversial appointment of a new Stormont spin doctor.

Alliance deputy leader Naomi Long said Robin Newton was preventing the executive from being held to account by blocking MLAs from discussing journalist David Gordon's new role as executive press secretary.

Mrs Long attempted to use a number of assembly mechanisms to force a debate about the former Nolan Show editor's new job but the speaker blocked both.

It emerged at the weekend that the first and deputy first minister used a procedure known as royal prerogative to appoint Mr Gordon without his job being advertised.

"This raises significant issues for the speaker in terms of how he will use his position to protect the integrity of the assembly and its ability to hold to account the executive on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland and prevent government by decree," Mrs Long said.

The East Belfast MLA said that when appointed as speaker Mr Newton said his role was to "protect the interests, integrity and procedures of the house and be fair in the way business is conducted".

"Clearly the use of prerogative powers by the executive is a significant challenge to the integrity of the assembly and a deliberate and concerted attempt to circumvent the assembly scrutiny process over which he is guardian," she said.

Mr McGuinness was later quizzed on the matter during question time.

He said he felt "absolutely grand" using royal powers to facilitate Mr Gordon's appointment to the new £75,000-a-year job.

The deputy first minister dismissed jibes from the opposition benches, including one reference to him as "your highness".

Mr McGuinness branded the controversy, which began a week ago, as a nonsensical "two day wonder" perpetuated by "anoraks".

Ulster Unionist Jo Anne Dobson had asked him how a "proud republican" felt in exercising the powers of a monarch.

"I feel grand, absolutely grand," Mr McGuinness replied.

"Anything that benefits the working of the executive and, by extension, enriches the lives of the people we represent, is a good thing. I have done many things over the course of the last 20 years, none of which I am ashamed of whatsoever because I think my contribution to this process has put us all where we are today."

Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister asked whether the Foyle MLA planned to invoke the prerogative powers again.

"Is the deputy first minister intending to further abuse the Royal Prerogative by usurping the legislative functions of this House?" he asked.

Mr McGuinness defended the appointment process.

"There was absolutely no secrecy or underhand dealings, some minority members can laugh all they like but the appointment of the press secretary was legally compliant," he said.

He said he was "not in the least concerned" about a debate he claimed was confined to social media.

Meanwhile, the body that regulates Stormont special adviser appointments has said it was not consulted when the first and deputy first minister changed the law.

Mr Gordon is understood to be working his notice at the BBC before taking up the press secretary's post early next month.

A spokesman for the corporation said the 51-year-old former Belfast Telegraph political editor was "no longer involved in editorial decision-making".

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