Northern Ireland news

Stormont special advisers' interest declarations to be published

Ex-DUP special adviser Andrew Crawford at the RHI inquiry
Brendan Hughes

STORMONT special advisers' declarations of interest are set to be published next week.

Departmental officials say they plan to make the documents public in the week commencing June 29.

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

The influential roles have come under greater scrutiny after concerns over their conduct and accountability were exposed in the RHI inquiry.

A revised code for conduct for Spads includes a requirement to disclose gifts and hospitality received, list meetings with external organisations, and declare conflicts of interest.

The publication date for declarations of interest was disclosed after The Irish News requested copies of them through Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation.

Of the executive departments which responded, most declined to provide the information on the basis that it was due for publication at a later date.

The Department of Justice said it did not hold the records, and that it was a matter for the Department of Finance.

Only one department, the Department for Communities, disclosed the information for its minister's Spad.

It said Ronan McGinley has declared that he is on the board of governors for a primary school, is vice-chair of Ardboe Community Projects and is a non-playing member of Ardboe GAA club.

Stormont parties pledged greater transparency over Spads as part of the New Decade, New Approach deal which restored power-sharing earlier this year.

It came after concerns over the conduct of Spads, their accountability and the scale of their influence on government were detailed during the Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry.

Among the issues, it emerged that DUP leader Arlene Foster's former aide Andrew Crawford shared inside information on the RHI scheme with relatives and the industry.

The salaries for Spads, who are politically appointed but paid from the public purse, have been capped with a maximum of £85,000 per year.

On Monday The Irish News revealed one of Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill's advisers received a £2,000 pay rise from Stormont officials just hours before the names and salaries of ministers' aides were announced.

John Loughran's wage was increased to £67,000 by civil servants, according to the internal correspondence.

TUV leader Jim Allister questioned whether the "initial assessment was changed on foot of lobbying" and has called for an explanation.

The finance department said Spad salaries were determined by senior officials.

Fourteen Spads were formally appointed in February, but one of First Minister Arlene Foster's advisers has since resigned.

DUP Mid Ulster councillor Kim Ashton said she stood down in early May "to take up a role in the private sector".

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

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