Northern Ireland news

Stormont denies timing special adviser announcement to avoid publicity

Stormont's new special advisers, top row from left: Emma Little-Pengelly, John Loughran, Eoin Rooney, Peter Martin and Ronan McGinley; middle row: Philip Weir, Stephen McGlade, Alastair Ross, Tanya McCamphill and Mark Beattie; bottom row: Kim Ashton, Mark Ovens, Claire Johnson and Dara O'Hagan
Brendan Hughes

A STORMONT department has denied timing an announcement of the government's new special advisers to avoid publicity.

The names and salaries of those taking up the influential roles advising executive ministers were confirmed on Friday shortly before 5pm.

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

Their average annual pay is now £62,750 – an almost 14 per cent drop compared to £72,681 in January 2017.

The total annual salary pay bill is £876,498, compared to £1,162,894 three years ago.

Among the Spads are former DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly, who will advise First Minister Arlene Foster, and ex-Sinn Féin MLA Dara O'Hagan, who was previously an adviser to the late Martin McGuinness.

Releasing information on a Friday afternoon is commonly considered among PR professionals as a way to reduce news coverage and limit publicity.

But a Department of Finance spokesman yesterday strongly defended the timing of the Spads' announcement.

"Special advisers' names and salaries were finalised on Friday afternoon. Having completed the appointment process the department immediately published this information," he said.

"Far from seeking to reduce coverage the news release was issued to all media outlets, published on the department website and shared via the departmental Twitter account.

"This was in time for UTV Live and BBC Newsline, both of which featured the special advisers announcement.

"It was also featured significantly across the print media the following day having been issued hours in advance of print deadlines."

Last month, a revised code of conduct for Spads was announced and their salaries were capped to three pay bands with a maximum of £85,000 per year.

New measures include provisions to ensure ministers are responsible for the management, conduct and discipline of their Spads.

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

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