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Why rise of so-called ‘Spads’ is an insult to our democracy

Something very unusual happened to me this week. I started listening to Jim Allister. More than that, I found myself agreeing that — on one issue at least — he appeared to be talking sense.

Up until then, all I had really registered was the diehard rejectionism, the vituperative loathing of what Allister still insists on calling ‘Sinn Fein/IRA' and, of course, that smug, self-satisfied smile he does.

But on the issue of special advisers — back in the news over the appointment of Mary McArdle as special adviser to the Culture Minister, Caral Ni Chuilin — Jim is definitely on to something.

Allister points out that special advisers — or ‘Spads’, as they're known — are hand-picked by each minister.

They have the full status of civil servants, but none of the constraints; they are unsackable and accountable to no-one except the minister who appointed them.

This shady group of political appointees holds numerous other special privileges: for instance, they qualify for civil service pensions, yet the taxpaying public is not permitted to know how much they are costing us.

Allister claims that “Special advisers are part of the absurd system of ministerial fiefdoms, with no accountability, but unrivalled access to every confidence of government.”

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What's more, we seem to be excessively endowed with Spads — Wales has eight, in Scotland there is a maximum of 12, but Northern Ireland has 19 of them.

The appointment of Mary McArdle made many of us feel queasy. Her crime — assisting in the 1984 murder of Mary Travers, a magistrate's 23-year-old daughter, as she left church — was foul, heinous.

I can see why the murdered woman's sister feels physically repulsed by the appointment. No wonder Ann Travers felt that it was an example of Sinn Fein “twisting the knife” in a wound still raw all these years later.

But we have a way of getting sidetracked on emotion and outrage, high drama and scandal — and thus missing the bigger picture. We are avid to hear about driller-killers and cold-eyed murderesses, not the obscure mechanisms of government.

So when Brian Crowe, special adviser to former DEL minister Danny Kennedy, was sacked, all the attention was on the lurid allegations that he had abused his position for sexual favours.

But when he wasn't bigging himself up to women on the internet, or photographing himself in, er, unusual and imaginative ways, what was he actually doing in his day job? What exactly is the mysterious role of the Spad?

Let's look at what we do know. We know that each Executive minister is entitled to appoint an adviser. We know that they act as the minister's proxy, standing in for the boss at meetings, or hearing representations on their behalf.

We know that they have a freer hand than regular civil servants. And while we may not know what our local Spads earn, we do know what their Westminster counterparts get.

Before he resigned his position as No 10's director of communications, Andy Coulson was sitting on £140,000-a-year. Foreign Secretary William Hague's special adviser, Chris Myers, was reportedly receiving £30,000 before he resigned, following what he said were “untrue and malicious allegations” about his relationship with Hague.

Still, not a bad pay-packet for a 25-year-old while it lasted. He must have been quite the boy wonder on foreign affairs.

In an attempt to acknowledge unease with the issue, the coalition Government made an explicit promise to limit the numbers of special advisers, but in reality the number of appointments has been rising.

Some claim that's no bad thing — commentator Daniel Finkelstein says that Spads have an important role to play in challenging the civil service and holding it to account. He says that, to do their job properly, advisers “should be more senior and have more power, not less”.

That may be the case in an ideal world, where advisers are selected for their skills and acumen. Back home in hucksterish Stormont, such high-minded thinking is irrelevant.

Here, special advisers aren't hired because they're talented, or knowledgeable. They are leap-frogged into these positions of great influence because they are loyal, dedicated sidekicks.

They work for the party interest at public expense. And it suits the political parties to keep this as quiet as possible, because they are all doing it. So, yes, it is pretty sickening to give an unelected former terrorist a position of unaccountable influence — at the expense of the taxpayer — in the heart of government.

But the real problem is not who these people are, it's the veil drawn over what they are.

What price these very special advisers?

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