Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 13 July 2014

A spad day at the office for our spoiled political class

Controversial: The Sinn Fein appointments of Mary McArdle and Paul Kavanagh as spads sparked huge controversy
Controversial: The Sinn Fein appointments of Mary McArdle and Paul Kavanagh as spads sparked huge controversy

We are an emotional people. Cool, measured reason is not our strong point; like little children, we are volatile and easily distracted. We don't feel comfortable in the realm of the mind, preferring, instead, the familiar, hot and heavy knockabout of simplistic, sectarian politics.

So it was inevitable, then, that the Special Advisers Bill, now passed by the Assembly, would turn into the usual pantomime of emotive posturing, bombastic grandstanding and petty, unedifying whingeing.

It is our singular, well-worn groove and we sink into it effortlessly, almost with a sigh of relief, just as the lapsed alcoholic lifts the forbidden drink to his lips.

It's bad for us, it's damaging to our future and it reduces our perspective to the narrowest pinhole view of the world, but still we feel compelled to do it.

Because who would we be if we weren't obsessing about who did what to whom in the conflict? No-one and nothing at all. And that can never be allowed to happen.

But the danger with endless, circular arguments over the historic legitimacy, or otherwise, of the IRA campaign is that, once more, we get distracted from what's happening right here, right now.

Vital as issues of public morality are, the more immediate concern is the nature and function of these special advisers (spads) themselves.

These spads are secret political operatives, lavishly funded by the taxpayer to the tune of up to £90,000 a year, in an administration that is itself characterised by paranoia and a nervous, arrogant relationship with the truth.

They cost us millions upon millions over the course of each Assembly term, yet they never go through a competitive recruitment process and can only be sacked by the minister who appointed them. So why aren't we entitled to know their identity?

Of course, the mysterious spad is not unique to Northern Ireland. While an excess of them is considered suspicious and unhealthy, they do exist in most political systems.

About 60 of them are slithering about Westminster. In fact, David Cameron has recently had the Cabinet table physically extended so that he can pack even more of them into meetings, though at least he had the courtesy (as well as the political nous) to make the exact details of names, pay grades and salaries of spads available when he came to power. Scotland, a country three times the size of Northern Ireland, has a restrained-sounding 12, while Wales gets by with just eight.

By comparison, Stormont seems to be disproportionately well-endowed with spads: 19 are permitted, with eight assigned specifically to the Office of the First and deputy First Minister.

So, in relationship to our size, we have more special advisers here than anywhere else, but we know less about them than they do anywhere else. Yet here we all go, haring after the tired old Troubles arguments, ignoring this reeking affront to basic democracy sitting right under our noses.

Perhaps it is unfair to assume that there is something inherently shady about the role of the special adviser in itself. Michael Jacobs, a visiting professor at University College London and a former spad, says that they are an important part of the government system.

"Working closely with (civil servants) on a day-to-day basis, spads help officials understand what their ministers want," he says. "And, in turn, (they) help ministers translate impartial advice into the language and judgments of real-world politics."

That all sounds grand in theory, but because we are not permitted to know anything at all about our own spads, or what qualifies them to perform the job that they have been so magisterially allocated, we have no means of testing the legitimacy of their status and function.

What is their particular experience, their specialist expertise?

If ministers won't tell us, they cannot blame us for assuming that there is something there to hide, especially in hucksterish Ulster, where so much as been traditionally done with a nod and a wink and a clap on the back.

A culture of furtiveness and secrecy automatically confers suspicion and a lurking sense of disquiet.

But there's a very simple answer to all this. If these very special advisers are, indeed, talented, well-qualified people fulfilling a vital function in the Stormont admin- istration, then let them emerge blinking from the subterranean darkness and tell us all exactly who they are and what they do.

In the bright light of day, it will be up to the paying public to judge if they are worth it.

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