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Stormont's 'Big Two' to slim down ranks of special advisers after widespread criticism


Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill and First Minister Arlene Foster

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill and First Minister Arlene Foster

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill and First Minister Arlene Foster

The DUP and Sinn Fein are planning to voluntarily cut the number of special advisers in The Executive Office.

Under the proposal, Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill and their junior ministers will employ six Spads in the office rather than the eight they are entitled to.

Stormont sources said both the First Minister and Deputy First Minister were opting for the move in response to public criticism over the number of Spads in the administration.

Every other Executive minister has a Spad, bringing the previous total number at Stormont to 16. With the proposed cut, that will fall to 14.

The behaviour and accountability of some of these powerful unelected advisers at Stormont was called into question at the RHI Inquiry.

TUV leader Jim Allister's bill to reduce the number of Spads in The Executive Office from eight to four will be introduced in the Assembly on Monday.

The Belfast Telegraph can also reveal that two former DUP Spads are set to return to Stormont.

Former South Belfast MP Emma Little-Pengelly, who lost her seat to the SDLP's Claire Hanna last month, will work in The Executive Office for Mrs Foster.

She had previously been a Stormont Spad for eight years and has also served as a junior minister.

She will be joined in The Executive Office by former hospital doctor and ex-Craigavon councillor Dr Philip Weir.

He has previously worked as a Spad for three DUP Health Ministers - Edwin Poots, Jim Wells and Simon Hamilton.

Stormont sources said that former Sinn Fein special advisers Stephen McGlade and John Loughran were likely to return to their roles.

Ms Little-Pengelly last month told the Belfast Telegraph that she hadn't decided if she would remain in politics following the loss of her Westminster seat.

She said she needed time to "reflect and recharge" after her defeat and to consider her next career move.

The DUP woman also outlined her plans to head to the jungle to volunteer with an animal wildlife sanctuary.

She said she hoped to spend a few weeks working in an orangutan sanctuary in Borneo.

"I think it will be a really interesting challenge and I want to learn about animal sanctuaries and conservation," Ms Little-Pengelly said.

She was special adviser to both the Rev Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson in the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister from 2007-15.

She then returned to Stormont as a South Belfast MLA and was appointed a junior minister in The Executive Office, but lost her seat two years later.

She was elected South Belfast MP in 2017 but was defeated by Ms Hanna in December.

DUP Ards and North Down councillor and lecturer Peter Martin will become Spad to Education Minister, Peter Weir.

DUP staffer Mark Beattie, who had worked in MEP Diane Dodds’ office, is on course to be appointed special adviser to Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots while Mid-Ulster councillor Kim Ashton is tipped to work for Mrs Foster in The Executive Office.

Eoin Rooney is set to be Spad to Sinn Fein Finance Minister Conor Murphy. The party’s Mid-Ulster group leader, Ronan McGinley, is due to become Spad to Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey.

He recently announced he would be stepping down from his council role to take up other responsibilities at a senior level within the party.

Alliance’s head of policy, Claire Johnson, who previously worked for the human rights organisation Liberty, will be Spad to Justice Minister Naomi Long.

Mark Ovens, who worked in the UUP policy team, will become special adviser to Health Minister Robin Swann.

Spads have secured salaries of up to £92,000.

Mr Allister's bill seeks to reduce the maximum salary to around £70,000.

It would also create a specific criminal offence for a minister or special adviser to communicate confidential government information to a third party.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy last week published an updated code for Spads but Mr Allister believes this doesn't go far enough.

The new code includes an £85,000 salary cap.

The three broad paybands for Spads - up to £54,999, £55,000-£69,000 and £70,000-£85,000 - will be set independently by Department of Finance officials.

The new code makes it clear that ministers are responsible for the appointment, conduct and discipline of Spads.

It will also require special advisers to declare details of gifts and hospitality and meetings with external organisations, to keep good records, use official email accounts and serve the Executive as a whole, as well as their appointing minister.

Belfast Telegraph