Belfast Telegraph

Special advisers are running ministers, Naomi Long says

DUP special advisers were "running ministers" during the last administration, Alliance leader Naomi Long has said.

The East Belfast MLA said that the way special advisers (Spads) operated in the executive had been "allowed to get out of hand".

In a wide-ranging interview with the Press Association, Mrs Long also said that Spads had become the "sacrificial lambs" in the renewable heat scandal to save political careers.

Former DUP minister Jonathan Bell claimed under parliamentary privilege that he was told he would not be able to challenge the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme because two DUP special advisers, Timothy Johnston and John Robinson, "have extensive interests in the poultry industry".

Mr Robinson, the former DUP director of communications, recently "stepped aside" from any future involvement in the botched renewable heat scheme after failing to declare that his father-in-law has two RHI boilers.

Another senior special adviser, Dr Andrew Crawford, resigned after he was named as the special adviser who had used his influence to delay the reduction of the scheme's excessively high tariffs.

Mrs Long said that Spads are there to give advice and guidance, not to make decisions.

"What has become very clear in terms of how - the DUP in particular - Spads didn't seem to respect those boundaries. They seemed to get involved in issues allegedly without the authorisation of the minister who employed them.

"They seemed to be involved in policy development in departments that were not their minister's department. That is highly irregular and should not happen."

She added: "I think what we have seen is that the special advisers themselves appear to be running the ministers, rather than the ministers running the departments.

"That should be of concern because special advisers are not accountable to the public in the same way that their minister is. They are appointed directly by the minister."

Mrs Long said the "flip side" of that is "the special advisers have been the sacrificial lambs in some of this in that ministers are not accepting the fact that if their special advisers behave badly it is the ministers who should resign, not the special adviser.

"The classic example of that in British politics was Adam Werritty and Liam Fox."

Mr Fox, the former defence secretary, resigned after it emerged that Mr Werritty, a lobbyist and his special adviser, had met him on 18 foreign trips despite having no official role.

"When Adam Werrity was abusing his position and claiming to be a special adviser and acting inappropriately Liam Fox resigned. That is what leadership looks like.

"Leadership is not coming out and throwing your colleagues, your civil servants and your special advisers under the bus to save your own political career," said Mrs Long.

She also criticised DUP leader Arlene Foster's handling of the RHI scandal and said the former first minister "handled this situation dreadfully".

"I think she temperamentally hasn't handled it well in terms of how she has come across as very imperious in the face of criticism and very quick to offload responsibility and blame on those who criticise her," the Alliance MLA said.

However, she insisted she did not "dislike" Mrs Foster and said she respected that she and DUP MLA Edwin Poots approached her with "best wishes" when she received death threats during the flags protests.

She said she believes she could work with Mrs Foster and Sinn Fein's new Northern Ireland leader Michelle O'Neill, who she described as "bright and capable and somebody I could do business with".

Mrs Long said she is hopeful that Alliance will secure at least eight seats in the forthcoming election which would qualify the party for a seat in the executive.

"If we make additional gains on top of that I think that could send a really strong message in terms of what would be able to be done in the Assembly in the next term."

Mrs Long said there is a lot of public anger, frustration and disappointment at the current political crisis.

"But it doesn't necessarily mean people are going to be rushing out to vote. Unless people turn their anger into some kind of action at the ballot box it will never change, it will be more of the same.

"If we continue to vote the way we always voted we will get the same sort of politics. The only thing that will change at Stormont is the people who are elected making a difference," she added.

She also said she was concerned about the political situation post-election.

"I don't see over the last number of weeks any sense that Sinn Fein or the DUP are on anything other than diverging courses at this point. The discourse between them has become increasingly fractious. There is a real bitterness that has emerged.

"My fear would be that either they won't be able to do a deal or if they do a deal it will be another patch repair. Is that the kind of politics we want? We need root and branch reform in terms of how parties engage with each other and how we do business in the Assembly."

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