Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 26 October 2014

What exactly is so special about all these advisers?

Ann Travers, whose sister Mary was shot dead by the IRA almost 30 years ago, speaks to the media at Stormont, Belfast as a bill barring ex-prisoners from becoming special advisers to ministers in Northern Ireland is likely to become law after the SDLP said they would not block it.
Mary McArdle

The courageous campaign by Ann Travers to thwart the appointment of a Sinn Fein special adviser begs other questions. Why do we need so many advisers at Stormont, if any at all? How are they appointed? How much are they paid? What are their duties? And where do their responsibilities begin and end? To whom are they accountable?

How is their behaviour monitored, for example, in terms of gifts and hospitality received? Why are their appointments and duties shrouded in so much secrecy? And what is their relationship with the existing permanent civil service secretariats in various departments?

When it comes to open government, the Stormont Executive and the Office of the First and deputy First Minister come well down the league table for transparency and no more so than over the role of highly-paid Spads, as these advisers are known in the political trade.

The former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, turned the role of special adviser into a political art form. Now it seems no government in the UK, of whatever flavour, can exist without Spads – be it Westminster, or the devolved assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Spads have become a stepping-stone to a full-time career as an MP, or Government minister, leading to concerns that some of today's and tomorrow's leaders have had such a cocooned political upbringing as to not have lived in the real world.

It is estimated that Westminster has some 60 special advisers, while Scotland has 12. However, if you care to search on the internet for further information, you will find plenty of detail about Westminster and Scottish Spads, but virtually nothing about Stormont's. At least in Scotland, as at Westminster, the public is kept informed. Lists of Spad names are on websites, as are details of any gifts they may have received, or hospitality offered.

The Office of the First and deputy First Minister is entitled to eight Spads, which seems unduly excessive. Also, each of the Executive's 11 departmental ministers can have a Spad, which means all of the five main parties embrace the principle of appointing special advisers.

And why wouldn't they, given that each minister gets to choose whom he, or she, wants and, therefore, can ensure that appointees kick with an acceptable political foot, all at the taxpayers' expense.

We can only hope that Executive ministers appoint Spads, who will challenge established viewpoints, possess a vision for the future of Northern Ireland, or the necessary professional expertise to bring something new and worthwhile to each ministerial office.

The suspicion remains that the appointment and contribution of some Spads has more to do with party allegiance. Whether that is the case or not, the lack of information about Spads means not even the inquiring media have an insight into their roles. An exception was Mary McArdle's appointment as special adviser to the then Minister for Culture, Leisure and Sport.

The controversy over Ms McArdle opened a small window on Stormont's Spads, sufficient to enable people to conclude that special adviser posts are rewards for party apparatchiks, or, to put it more bluntly, exceptionally well-paid jobs for the boys – and the girls.

The arguments will continue over the extent to which our society is prepared to accept the rehabilitation of former prisoners and terrorists, such as Mary McArdle. While they cannot be left out in the cold forever, there are also limits to the feelings of ordinary, decent people, as eloquently expressed by Ann Travers.

The main political parties are all exercised one way or the other over Jim Allister's private member's Bill to stop anyone with a serious criminal conviction from being appointed as a special adviser.

None shows the same enthusiasm for reducing the number of Spads, or ensuring that the public is told who they are and how much they are paid.

Estimates vary, but it is generally accepted that the bill for Spads tops £1m a year – and could even be much more.

The Executive may argue that this is a relatively small price to pay for expert advice, if that is what ministers are actually receiving. But the public might conclude it is yet another example of Stormont excess.

The presence of so many special advisers paid more than £80,000 a year, with generous pension rights, must be open to more scrutiny. Ann Travers may have won her battle over one Spad, but there is another still to be fought to reduce the over-indulgence of Stormont parties in looking after their own interests at the public's expense.

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