Leading article

Executive's Spad reforms may not go far enough


Long before the RHI inquiry, there were concerns over the role and influence of special advisers (Spads) in the Stormont administration.

These are highly paid, unelected political appointees who wield considerable power but without the transparency and accountability the public is entitled to expect of those holding key positions in government.

Another issue is the number of Spads employed at Stormont. For reasons that were never entirely clear, the Northern Ireland Executive had many more special advisers than the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales, at a significantly greater cost to the public purse.

In 2015, TUV leader Jim Allister brought forward a bill aimed at reforming the system, capping wages as well as the number of Spads that could be employed.

The bill was defeated after the DUP and Sinn Féin voted against.

As we know, the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) debacle put the role of special advisers under intense scrutiny, exposing a deeply alarming culture that was not entirely focused on the best interests of the Northern Ireland public.

We await the outcome of Judge Patrick Coghlin's deliberations, which may be published next month, but in the meantime the newly restored administration has moved to produce an updated code of conduct for special advisers.


Under the new code, unveiled by finance minister Conor Murphy, the maximum salary has been capped at £85,000, down from the previous £91,000.

It also makes it clear that ministers are responsible for the appointment, conduct and discipline of their special advisers.

Other measures include the requirement for Spads to declare gifts and outside meetings, to keep good records, use official email accounts and serve the executive as a whole, as well as their appointing minister.

Some of these steps are so obvious it raises the question why were they not already being fully observed.

Mr Murphy insists that Spads are a 'critical part of the team supporting ministers' but it is far from clear why we have so many special advisers and how this high cost to the taxpayer can be justified in times of severe financial pressure.

Reform is absolutely necessary and long overdue but this code may not go far enough and indeed may be overtaken by an RHI report demanding even more stringent safeguards.




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