Who can really put special advisers under the spotlight?
Accusations of political interference levelled against Nelson McCausland aide hard to probe, says Alex Kane
Special Advisers – or Spads, as they tend to be known – have long been regarded as shadowy, backroom figures who do the bidding of their ministerial masters and are well paid for so doing.
Jim Allister's recent Private Member's bill introduced some new restrictions on who can be appointed, but didn't throw much light on their role. Spads are not new to controversy. Dr Brian Crowe (former Spad to UUP minister Danny Kennedy) in 2011 was dismissed over events in his personal life but was seen to have had fairly substantial influence at the heart of the department.
The appointment of former jailed terrorist Mary McArdle as a Spad to Sinn Fein Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin caused an uproar. And now, Stephen Brimstone, Nelson McCausland's Spad, has been accused of "political interference"; of telling DUP councillor Jenny Palmer "the party comes first – you do what you're told".
The official guidelines on their role and status are pretty straightforward: 'Special Advisers have the status of civil servants and are remunerated by their employing departments from public funds. They are employed to help ministers on matters where the work of the Northern Ireland administration and ministers' party responsibilities overlap and where it would be inappropriate for permanent civil servants to become involved.
'The employment of Special Advisers adds a political dimension to the advice available to ministers, while reinforcing the political neutrality of the permanent civil service by distinguishing the source of political advice and support.'
Furthermore, they 'should not use official resources for party political activity. They are employed to serve the objectives of the administration and the department in which they work.
'It is this which justifies their being paid from public funds and being able to use public resources, and explains why their participation in party politics is carefully limited. They should act in a way which upholds the political impartiality of civil servants. They should avoid anything which might reasonably lead to the criticism that people paid from public funds are being used for party political purposes.'
Dr Malcolm McKibbin, head of the NI Civil Service, has now asked officials in Mr McCausland's Department of Social Development (DSD) to 'carry out a fact-finding exercise to establish if there is any basis for proceeding with a formal disciplinary investigation.'
But here's the problem: Brimstone is not a civil servant and does not take instructions from a civil servant. He is answerable to Nelson McCausland – and only him.
I'm not even sure on what basis he could be quizzed by departmental staff, unless there is a suggestion he used a departmental phone or computer to contact Mrs Palmer.
It seems this 'fact-finding exercise' is the sort of mechanism which the civil service would use to investigate one of their own. But Brimstone is not one of their own.
That being the case Jim Allister makes a very valid point when he argues that "given the powerful position which special advisers hold, it would be better if complaints were examined by an individual or body independent of the department".
There are three questions which need answered: did Brimstone say and do what Mrs Palmer has accused him of; if so, was he instructed by Mr McCausland (or a senior DUP figure) to do so; or, did he contact her without authority? I really don't think that an internal DSD enquiry can get those answers, because it doesn't seem to me that they have the authority to question Brimstone on his relationship with his minister or a party colleague, let alone question him on any instructions or otherwise he may have received from his minister.
Last week, veteran journalist Eamonn Mallie wrote that there had been a meeting between Mrs Palmer and Mr Brimstone and "following that meeting it was agreed that Mrs Palmer would get a public apology from Mr Brimstone, which will underscore her integrity". If this is true – and Mrs Palmer has confirmed the story – then the contents of that apology, rather than a 'fact-finding exercise,' will probably determine Brimstone's fate.
But it still leaves a problem. If a Spad is accused of political interference (and the Crowe and McArdle cases were different types of problem) then who is best placed to carry out the investigation? The minister's hands are tied and so, too, are those of his departmental civil servants.
Alex Kane is a political writer and commentator