Northern Ireland news

Councillors and party staffers set to take up Stormont special adviser roles

Tipped to be announced as special advisers, top from left: Emma Little-Pengelly Philip Weir, Kim Ashton and Eoin Rooney; middle: John Loughran, Stephen McGlade, Ronan McGinley and Ken Nelson; bottom: Peter Martin, Mark Ovens, Tanya McCamphill and Claire Johnson
Brendan Hughes

THESE are the people expected to be announced as Stormont's new special advisers.

A businessman, some party councillors and several back-room staffers are among those tipped to take up the influential roles advising executive ministers.

Stormont has pledged greater scrutiny of special advisers (Spads) after concerns over the conduct and accountability were exposed in the RHI inquiry.

A revised code of conduct has been devised and their salaries are to be capped at a maximum of £85,000 per year.

Several Spads are already in post, but the Department of Finance plans to make a formal announcement by the end of this week.

The DUP's Emma Little-Pengelly was inadvertently confirmed yesterday as a Spad to First Minister Arlene Foster after her name card was spotted during a meeting in Cardiff.

Ms Little-Pengelly, who in December lost her South Belfast MP seat to the SDLP's Claire Hanna, was previously a special adviser to Peter Robinson when he was First Minister.

Eight Spads can be appointed to the Executive Office (TEO) – four in the First Minister's side of the joint office and four in the Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill's side.

But amid calls to cut the number of Spads, it is understood there has been some discussion about the DUP and Sinn Féin potentially only appointing three each.

Philip Weir is expected to return as a DUP Spad in TEO and Mid Ulster councillor Kim Ashton has also been in the frame, while Sinn Féin is tipped to appoint party workers John Loughran and Stephen McGlade.

Sinn Féin's Ronan McGinley, who is standing down as a councillor and party group leader in Mid Ulster council, is expected to become the adviser for communities minister Deirdre Hargey.

Party policy worker Eoin Rooney is due to return as Spad in the Department of Finance, having previously advised former Sinn Féin finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir.

Larne businessman Ken Nelson, chairman of InterTradeIreland, has been tipped as the new Spad to DUP economy minister Diane Dodds.

Her former staffer Mark Beattie, who worked in Mrs Dodds's office in her role as an MEP, is expected to become the Spad to DUP agriculture minister Edwin Poots.

In education, DUP minister Peter Weir is tipped to appoint Peter Martin to the Spad role. Mr Martin is a DUP councillor in Ards and North Down, and a business lecturer at Belfast Metropolitan College.

Since becoming health minister, ex-UUP leader Robin Swann has been spotted with Mark Ovens by his side. Mr Ovens has previously worked in the party's policy team.

SDLP infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon is expected to appoint as her adviser Tanya McCamphill, who has previously worked for the SNP and as the SDLP's head of campaigns.

Claire Johnson, the Alliance Party's head of policy, has been spotted assisting party leader and justice minister Naomi Long and is expected to formally take up the Spad role.

The Department of Finance was yesterday asked to confirm the names of those formally appointed as Spads, but the department declined to confirm any appointments.

In a statement a spokeswoman said: "A number of special advisers are in post.

"The Department of Finance is currently finalising pay and once this process is completed, details of special advisers will be published, including their salaries.

"An announcement on this will be made by the end of this week."

A new code of conduct for Stormont's special advisers and how they are appointed has been made public.

The new measures for Spads announced last week included provisions to ensure ministers are responsible for management, conduct and discipline of their Spads.

Special advisers will be required to publish their meetings with external organisations, as well as gifts and hospitality received.

Announcing the new code, finance minister Conor Murphy said advisers would be expected to "serve the executive as a whole, not just their own minister".

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