Northern Ireland news

Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill have separate heads of joint press office

First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye
Brendan Hughes

FIRST Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill have separate heads of their press office despite the joint nature of their department.

While there is one 'Head of Press Office' employed in every other Stormont department in the power-sharing government, the Executive Office (TEO) has two.

One is described as 'Head of Press Office (FM)' and the other 'Head of Press Office (dFM)'.

They are among eight press officers working in TEO, which was previously called the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

Across the nine executive departments, each Head of Press Office earns an annual salary of up to £53,518.

The joint nature of the first and deputy first minister's department meant that, in previous administrations, it frequently did not answer media queries unless both sides of the office could agree on a response.

TEO said there has been "no change" in the communications support provided to ministers since the restoration of power-sharing.

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It said the 'Head of Press Office' titles were introduced when departments were merged and restructured in 2016 to "more accurately reflect the duties of the post".

But TUV leader Jim Allister said it underscores his concerns about a "malfunctioning government".

"While we are told that it is a 'New Decade, New Approach', this underscores the fact that we have the same old dysfunctional system. Not only do we have two heads of government but we now have two heads of the press office," he said.

"If Mrs Foster and O'Neill cannot even have a joined-up approach when issuing press releases how can one expect them to lead a joined-up government?

"This development merely underscores my belief that both of the pillars upon which Stormont is built – mandatory coalition and the office of co-First Ministers – leads to malfunctioning government and squander in government.

"What is required is fundamental root and branch reform of the entire system."

Civil servants say the first and deputy first minister's department always had two Principal Information Officers, but their titles were changed to Head of Press Office in 2016.

Asked about having two 'Heads of Press Office', a TEO spokeswoman said: "There has been no change to the support provided to ministers by EIS (Executive Information Service).

"The title Head of Press Office was introduced by the Head of EIS when departments were restructured in 2016 to more accurately reflect the duties of the post.

"Head of Press Office roles are at Grade 7 level in all departments."

In 2016, just months before the executive's collapse, the DUP and Sinn Féin-led government appointed former Nolan Show editor David Gordon to the newly created role of executive press secretary.

At the time DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness hailed the £75,000-a-year appointment as a positive sign of ministers "absolutely determined to work collectively".

They described it as a "joint appointment, reflecting the executive's shared commitment to communicate effectively and move forward together".

TEO was asked yesterday if there were any plans to appoint a new executive press secretary.

The department last night did not respond.

Following Stormont's collapse, Mr Gordon was appointed as director of communications within the Department of Health.

The assembly was told in 2016 there were 55 press officers working in government departments. At the time this compared to 21 in the Welsh Government and 45 communications staff in the Scottish Government.

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