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Meet the Spads: fiercely loyal, secretive, very well-paid and essential to the success of all political parties

By Claire O'Boyle

It's been another remarkable week at Stormont, but for once the politicians haven't been the only ones making the headlines. Instead, we've been talking about those mysterious, shadowy figures who lurk around trading wicked whispers on the hill.

Spads - or special advisers.

But just who are they? What do they do? And are they really worth all the intrigue?

Officially, Spads provide advice and support to their ministers. They broadly agree with the views of the party and take some of the burden from their public-facing politicians when the real nitty gritty needs to be done.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, according to insiders, things can start to go awry when those very special advisers get a bit too cosy behind the scenes.

When they're at the centre of the party longer than the politicians, when their legend grows and they start to believe their own hype. That's when they start to wield too much power.

This week, the DUP's team of Spads has taken a kicking. Former First Minister Arlene Foster's former adviser, Dr Andrew Crawford, resigned on Thursday - 24 hours after he was named at the Public Accounts Committee as the man suspected of influencing the decision to keep the controversial RHI "cash for ash" scheme running when department officials wanted curbs brought in.

Dr Crawford, whose brother is an RHI claimant, said he felt he was becoming a "distraction" - although he denied the allegation.

Just the day before, Economy Minister Simon Hamilton's Spad, John Robinson, stepped aside from any involvement with the Renewable Heat Initiative debacle after admitting his father-in-law runs two boilers.

But the DUP's team are far from the first Spads to kick up a storm in Stormont.

The very number of them, and their huge cost to the public purse, hasn't gone down well in the past.

At the last full count, in 2013/14, there were 21 Spads working on the hill, costing just shy of an eye-watering £2m a year - more than any other devolved government in the UK.

Since the last election, when the merging of Government departments saw the number of ministers fall from 15 to 11, there have been 16 Spads - although, with a man down at the Executive Office and Dr Crawford's resignation from the Department of Agriculture this week, just 14 advisers are in situ right now.

When you consider around 1,000 are believed to waft their way around the White House with every sitting US President, that doesn't really seem like much. But, whatever their numbers, they've always been able to make themselves known.

In the last few years alone, a number of Spad-related scandals have rocked the corridors of power.

In 2011 Ulster Unionist special adviser Brian Crowe, a former Church of Ireland minister, was axed when it emerged he'd sent "inappropriate" messages to a woman on an internet chatroom, claiming he offered political favours for sex.

The married dad-of-two, who described himself as an "intellectual slut" told the female lobbyist she would increase her chances of accessing his minister if she had sex with him.

Then-Minister for Employment and Learning Danny Kennedy sacked him when the row erupted, saying Mr Crowe's role had become untenable. There was no suggestion Mr Kennedy had any knowledge of his adviser's online activities.

A year later, Sinn Fein Spad Mary McArdle departed her post after controversy exploded because of her conviction over her role in the 1984 murder of Mary Travers, who was just 22 when she died. Ms McArdle, adviser to then Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin, shifted roles within the party.

And embroiled in the same storm of public outrage, party colleague and fellow Spad Paul Kavanagh, then adviser to Martin McGuinness, lost his position in 2013 because of a conviction.

He, too, remained within the party and estimates suggested he was awarded £60,000 in compensation for losing his job because of a change in the law.

But back to the present and what could be going wrong with today's swathe of Spads.

According to an insider, one major problem has been the basic imbalance in brains and experience between Sinn Fein's Spads and the DUP's, meaning one party has managed very often to simply out-manoeuvre the other.

"While the DUP have selected some of Northern Ireland's very top people - from barristers and top business execs - Sinn Fein looked instead to community workers and grassroots supporters, meaning they are simply not an equal match when facing off in meetings," he said.

"The DUP have also held on to their top people, right through various leaders, so they've got long-term experience of Stormont, too." But that, according to the insider, isn't necessarily a good thing.

"One safeguard that could be put in place would be to limit a Spad's tenure to two terms," he said. "If they are there longer than the ministers and even the civil servants, then naturally their influence and power grows and that's when things get complicated."

So who are some of the Spads we should be aware of?

Well, among the most senior are former accountant Timothy Johnston and ex-barrister Richard Bullick of the DUP. Both at the Executive Office, they're paid handsomely at £91,809 apiece.

Also at the Executive, working alongside Sinn Fein Junior Minister Megan Fearon is Alex Maskey's niece, Grainne Maskey, who is paid a hefty £67,219.

And while she's now a prominent DUP MLA, not long ago Emma Little Pengelly worked as an adviser at the Executive Office during Peter Robinson's administration. Little Pengelly, who is married to a senior member of the civil service, was paid in the top rung of Spads at £91,809 a year.

Of all of today's 14 working advisers, 12 are paid in the top wage bracket of £59,627-£91,809, with only the Departments of Education and Finance paying their special advisers in the lower band of £37,794-£52,816. Until Thursday, Dr Andrew Crawford was also paid in the top tier.

And while the figures are high and much of Spads' work is certainly mysterious the reality is far from entirely cloak and dagger and too much pay, says former SDLP adviser Michael McKernan.

"As with everything, there are good and bad Spads," he said. "Some are genuinely qualified, massively experienced people, who have the relevant knowledge to make a really positive difference.

"It can seem from the outside like every Spad is a crony, a staunch party insider and someone who wields power, but that's really not the case.

"There are two main things a party and minister will want from their advisers - someone who is loyal and broadly on the same page, but also someone with proper, relevant experience.

"Very often politicians lack the practical, real-world business experience they need to govern, which is where the best Spads come in.

"You'll get people who, in the real world, would earn huge amounts of money as barristers, or in business and their insight and intellect can be invaluable.

"For many of the Spads doing a really good job, they are definitely worth the money. They'd be earning more outside politics and we most definitely should not be suspicious of them all."

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