Call to tighten Stormont adviser rules when Assembly resumes

The rules around special advisers must be looked at “as a priority” if the Northern Ireland Assembly ever comes back, an inquiry has heard.

The RHI Inquiry was set up to probe how costs for Northern Ireland’s Renewable Heat Incentive scheme spiralled.

Special advisers (spads) are appointed by ministers to advise them and receive salaries from £50,000 up to £90,000. They are bound by a code of conduct.

The inquiry has heard claims that some DUP spads were appointed without due process; there was a hierarchy among them; they were overruling ministers; and they were changing documents without the knowledge of their minister.

Former DUP spad Stephen Brimstone appeared before the inquiry on Thursday to answer questions over allegations of a conflict of interest after he remained in high-level discussions about the scheme, while having applied to it.

He had served as a DUP spad in several departments before resigning in late 2016.

Mr Brimstone was previously in the headlines when he advised social development minister Nelson McCausland.

Allegations then emerged there had been political interference in the running of the Housing Executive.

A report following that probe recommended a disciplinary investigation against Mr Brimstone.

But to much negative reaction Mr McCausland decided that no further action needed to be taken against his adviser.

The inquiry’s chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said on Thursday that the rules on appointing and disciplining ministerial advisers is “one of the first things that needs to be looked at” if devolution returns in Northern Ireland.

He said: “Assuming the Assembly gets back, one of the first things that requires to be done is that this code needs to be looked at again in terms of whether it is or is not infringed.

“The disciplinary process also has to be looked at again, it has to be looked at in terms of the experience of special advisers to date and in terms of the Northern Ireland public as a whole.

“If it ever does get back into existence, that should be a priority surely.”

Mr Brimstone told the inquiry that he felt there is a perception that spads are “a band of individuals just going and doing as we please”.

He said this “couldn’t be further from the truth”.

“We are operating to the programme for government, we are trying to deliver on that,” he said, adding that there should be better agreed processes for special advisers to operate within.

The inquiry has heard allegations that former DUP spad Timothy Johnston was at the top of a hierarchy.

Renewable Heat Initiative allegations
DUP Councillor Jonathan Buckley with DUP adviser Timothy Johnston at Parliament Buildings in Stormont (PA)

Mr Johnston served as special adviser to former first ministers Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster from 2007 to the collapse of the Assembly in 2017.

Mr Brimstone told the inquiry that Mr Johnston brought expertise that secured “stable government” at Stormont.

He said “time will tell” how big his friend and former colleague’s “specialist” contribution has been.

“I don’t think anyone really realises what individuals had to go through at times in this country in order to bring a period of stable government,” he said.

He added: “This is not a simple place to do government”, claiming there had been intense “brokering” between the DUP and Sinn Fein over “even the smallest issues”.

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