Northern Ireland news

Michelle O'Neill's aide got £2k pay rise before Spads announced

Special adviser John Loughran with Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA
Brendan Hughes

MICHELLE O'Neill's special adviser received a £2,000 pay rise from Stormont officials just hours before the names and salaries of ministers' aides were announced, documents show.

John Loughran, one of three Sinn Féin special advisers (Spads) in the Deputy First Minister's office, had his annual wage increased to £67,000.

The names and salaries of those taking up the politically appointed roles advising ministers were revealed in mid-February following the restoration of devolved government.

The day before the announcement, the finance department collated draft letters due to be sent to each minister confirming the decision by senior civil servants on Spad pay levels.

Among them was a letter to Ms O'Neill which listed Mr Loughran's salary as £65,000, according to the internal correspondence obtained by The Irish News.

When the final letters were sent the following day on February 14 – shortly before the announcement was made to the press that afternoon – Mr Loughran's salary had been changed to £67,000.

The correspondence, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, does not say why this change was made.

TUV leader Jim Allister, who has been proposing new legislation on Spads, said the wage rise needs to be explained.

The North Antrim MLA described the alteration as "relatively modest" but questioned whether the correspondence "suggests the initial assessment was changed on foot of lobbying".

"It is important that this matter is explained, as the past legacy of favourable treatment for Spads means suspicion will arise when a salary is uplifted, without explanation," he said.

The letters confirming Spads' salaries were sent on behalf of the finance department's chief civil servant, permanent secretary Sue Gray.

On February 13, the £65,000 figure for Mr Loughran was repeated in a document titled "record of decision on special adviser pay", as well as in a civil servants' spreadsheet comparing Spads' salaries with previous years.

On the same day, an official emailed Ms Gray the draft letters, adding: "Draft letters with dates tomorrow. All have date change. The FM and dFM letters have changed and need to be replaced."

The letters to both the first and deputy first ministers originally included the line: "I have also spoken to the special advisers when necessary" but were changed to: "I have also spoken to your special advisers." Ms O'Neill's letter also included the change to Mr Loughran's salary.

The final letters were sent to ministers at around 4pm the following day, with the Spads announced publicly an hour later.

In an email a week earlier, an official told Ms Gray that apart from the economy adviser, "all the letters are done and sitting in your drafts".

The correspondence suggests the Department of Finance held back on issuing details on Spads due to delays in recruiting an adviser for the economy minister.

Asked why Mr Loughran's wage had been changed, a finance department spokeswoman said: "Special adviser salaries were determined by senior officials in the Department of Finance. The first letter was a draft, which did not issue."

The Executive Office did not respond to requests for a comment.

Stormont has pledged greater scrutiny of Spads 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.

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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