Northern Ireland news

First Minister Arlene Foster's special adviser resigns

DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster with her former special adviser, party councillor Kim Ashton
Brendan Hughes

A SPECIAL adviser to First Minister Arlene Foster has resigned less than three months after being appointed.

Kim Ashton, a DUP councillor, was one of three special advisers in party leader Mrs Foster's Stormont department.

Ministers' special advisers (Spads) were formally appointed in mid-February following the restoration of devolution.

Ms Ashton's last day in her Spad role was May 4.

Ms Ashton said: "It was a great privilege to serve as an adviser to Northern Ireland's First Minister.

"I stepped down last month to take up a role in the private sector and I will continue to serve the people of Dungannon as a DUP councillor."

In a statement Mrs Foster said: "Kim was an excellent special adviser and I give her my best wishes in her new role."

The DUP said there are no immediate plans to fill the vacancy.

The party issued a statement after the Department of Finance confirmed Ms Ashton's departure in a Freedom of Information (FOI) response to The Irish News.

The Executive Office (TEO) and finance department had previously declined to comment on the vacancy, referring queries to the DUP.

Ms Ashton was among three DUP Spads in TEO alongside former MP Emma Little-Pengelly and Philip Weir.

Eight Spads can be appointed to the joint department – four each for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister – but the DUP and Sinn Féin appointed only three each.

TUV leader Jim Allister, who is seeking to reduce the number of Spads through legislation, said: "If Arlene Foster can do without a Spad in the middle of a pandemic and no-one notices it seems to me a fairly good argument that we don't need as many special advisers at Stormont.

"One of the provisions of my Bill is to reduce the number of Spads in the Execuive Office from the current maximum of eight – as many as the entire Welsh Government – to four.

"We had all thought until now that public pressure had reduced the number of Spads in the Executive Office to six, three each for the first and deputy first minister. Now we know that they can get by with five.

"It is hardly an unreasonable proportion to reduce the number of Spads by one more and ensure that we don't get back to the ridiculous situation where there are eight in a single department again."

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, compared to £72,681 in January 2017.

Among the 13 current Spads are ex-Sinn Féin MLA Dara O'Hagan, who was previously an adviser to the late Martin McGuinness, and former DUP MLA Alastair Ross.

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