Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: A code of conduct is necessary for Spads

Editor's Viewpoint

The issue of Spads, or special advisers to ministers in the power-sharing administration at Stormont, has frequently been a contentious one. But it was only with the RHI inquiry that their role, accountability and influence was brought into sharp focus for an astonished public.

While it was Spads within the DUP who were mainly under scrutiny in the inquiry, it has become clear that both the DUP and Sinn Fein did not adhere to the rules governing the appointment of their special advisers.

Little wonder then that David Sterling, head of the Civil Service, who will be giving evidence to the inquiry today, has called for a review into the role of special advisers before devolved government is restored, if ever.

In 2013 TUV leader Jim Allister got legislation through Stormont banning anyone with a serious criminal conviction from being employed as a Spad. But two years later he blamed Sinn Fein and the DUP for colluding to defeat another bill brought by him which would have reduced the number of Spads, tied their pay to Civil Service rates and brought them under Civil Service disciplinary processes.

The RHI inquiry on Tuesday heard that Sinn Fein, which was one of the main proponents in demanding the employment of Spads in the first instance, circumvented the ban on former convicted terrorists being employed as Spads by making one of their key advisers, Aiden McAteer, a paid employee of the party in contravention of the rules.

While in no way attempting to prejudice or anticipate the findings of the inquiry, it is safe to say that the DUP Spads wielded enormous power - one was said to be more influential than any MLA, apart from the party leader.

There is a narrative which suggests that far from simply advising ministers on issues, some Spads effectively made decisions which were presented to their supposed masters as the desired direction of travel.

Given this insight into the workings of government, there can be little surprise that Mr Sterling is keen to seek a review of how Spads operate and their code of conduct.

Civil servants, some of whose performance during the RHI debacle was awe-inspiring in its incompetence, are currently reviewing codes and guidance relating to the relationships between ministers, civil servants and special advisers. A root and branch approach is essential, given what we now know.

Painful past probably why we aren't easily frightened

It takes more than a horror movie to scare Northern Ireland film buffs, who are the most difficult to frighten in the UK, according to a pre-Halloween survey.

Those watching horrors in England, Scotland and Wales are far more likely to turn away from the screen when something alarming is shown.

Maybe our laughter in the face of fear comes from sad experiences over the years - when things that went bump in the night were deadly serious and certainly not confined to the silver screen or screen writers' imagination.

This hard-to-frighten accolade may be well deserved for us, but it is not one that we particularly want to be associated with.

Belfast Telegraph

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