Northern Ireland news

Stormont delayed Spads announcement due to economy vacancy

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 which denied timing an announcement of the executive's new special advisers to avoid publicity had finalised all but one of the names weeks earlier.

The Department of Finance held back on issuing details due to delays in recruiting an adviser for the economy minister, emails obtained by The Irish News show.

A senior official told colleagues the wait was due to the DUP's Diane Dodds "still discussing with [her] party".

The names and salaries of the 14 special advisers (Spads) were publicly confirmed on Friday February 14 just before 5pm.

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

The Department of Finance had strongly defended the timing, saying that "having completed the appointment process the department immediately published this information".

However, internal emails obtained through a Freedom of Information request show all the names and proposed salaries had been collated at a least a day before.

The finance department's chief civil servant, permanent secretary Sue Gray, had intended to make an announcement a fortnight earlier on January 31 – again on a Friday.

On January 30, a finance department official sought an update from a colleague in the Department for the Economy (DfE) on Mrs Dodds's plans.

He wrote: "Sue hopes to publish the list of appointed Spads and their salaries tomorrow. But we are still missing DfE. Has any progress been made over the last few days?"

The DfE official replied: "DfE minister still discussing with party. Hopes to give me a name tomorrow."

On February 5, an Executive Office official queried the delay in issuing formal appointment letters.

"There is a real urgency to this – some of those to be appointed have been supporting ministers since Monday January 13 and the media has already reported on those to be appointed," he wrote.

A finance official replied: "We have one last Spad to appoint – DfE. They want to wait until the last one is in place so that the announcement can refer to changes in salaries etc."

Mrs Dodds eventually appointed ex-DUP MLA Alastair Ross as her adviser.

On February 7, an official emailed to Ms Gray saying that apart from DfE, "all the letters are done and sitting in your drafts".

A draft press release, without the economy Spad details, was also circulated.

In an email at 2.32pm on February 13 – the day before the Spads were publicly announced – a finance official sent Ms Gray a spreadsheet of the planned salaries for all 14 Spads and a comparison with previous years.

About an hour later, he also sent Ms Gray appointment letters to be issued to all 14 Spads formally confirming their roles and salaries.

"Draft letters with dates tomorrow," the official wrote.

A draft press release including all the names and salaries of the Spads was also circulated.

The final letters of appointment were sent out at around 4pm with the Spads announcement made an hour later.

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

A revised code of conduct was announced and their salaries were capped with a maximum of £85,000 per year.

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.

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