Ministerial special advisers ‘breached’ appointments law

Powerful DUP and Sinn Fein ministerial special advisers (Spads) “breached” a law designed to govern their behaviour, the RHI public inquiry has said.

Signing a letter of appointment camouflaged “complete failure” to comply with the appointment code, Sir Patrick Coghlin’s report added.

A key purpose of the mandatory protocol was to ensure rapport and trust existed between minister and adviser.

In reality they were more directly responsible to their party commands, the retired judge’s probe found.

A laptop shows Sir Patrick delivering his findings from his Renewable Heat Incentive public inquiry in the Long Gallery at Stormont, Belfast
A laptop shows Sir Patrick Coghlin delivering his findings from his Renewable Heat Incentive public inquiry in the Long Gallery at Stormont, Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

It said: “The inquiry finds that the practices adopted by the DUP and Sinn Fein in centralising the appointment, control and management of Spads effectively frustrated that purpose of the democratically enacted legislation.

“As a consequence, some Spads wielded very significant power and were encouraged to see themselves as more directly responsible to the central authority of Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and their political parties than to their individual ministers.”

It outlined the appointment of an adviser to the responsible minister at the time the RHI overspend was becoming clear.

The inquiry found no objective evidence to support energy minister Jonathan Bell’s allegation that his adviser Tim Cairns intervened to keep RHI matters off the agenda at meetings.

It did note difficult relations between the pair and questioned how Mr Cairns was appointed.

“The procedure was not, as required by the appointment code, by way of a competitive selection from a candidate pool set up after a trawl by minister (Jonathan) Bell but was instead conducted by the DUP through its then leader, and the then First Minister, Mr (Peter) Robinson.”

It said it was clear from the evidence that Sinn Fein and the DUP “breached the spirit and/or provisions” of the 2013 Act of the Assembly designed to regulate special advisers.

Letters of appointment were drafted by civil servants under intense workload pressure and with limited resources.

The inquiry said: “In the unique political context of devolution in Northern Ireland, they were trying to deliver in the highly-charged atmosphere of an enforced coalition between two major parties with radically conflicting political ideologies.”

The inquiry also highlighted concerns about Arlene Foster’s working arrangements with her then-special adviser Dr Andrew Crawford – particularly surrounding his role analysing key documents.

It said: “The arrangement between DETI minister Foster and her special adviser concerning the division of responsibility between them for reading, analysing and digesting important documents was ineffective and led to the false reassurance on the part of the minister, and potentially of officials, as to the level of scrutiny applied to detailed technical reports provided to the minister.”

The report identified instances of “unacceptable behaviour” by Dr Crawford and other DUP advisers, including the party’s current press office director John Robinson.

It criticised Dr Crawford for sharing confidential documents relating to the scheme with family members.

A proposal made by Mrs Foster’s special adviser would have ensured it remained over-generous to participants and poultry farmers in particular.

His suggested amendment was not discussed with Mrs Foster, the report said.

Dr Crawford’s suggestion was aimed at benefiting poultry farmers, an industry in which his family was “clearly involved”.

The inquiry criticised Mr Robinson for leaking emails relating to the involvement of civil servants in the scheme to “divert the attention of the media away from their party”.

Neither Mrs Foster’s former Spad Dr Crawford nor another OFMDFM adviser Stephen Brimstone formally recorded potential conflicts of interest in 2015/16 when they ought to have done so, the inquiry said.

Both appeared to have taken part in meetings relating to the scheme when they should not have.

Dr Crawford had three family members who were part of the scheme, while Mr Brimstone owned an RHI boiler.

The inquiry found that there should have been a system in existence for periodic registration of interests and potential conflicts in writing.

It also questioned the use of a minister’s letter to confirm appointment as a written assurance that there had been compliance with the code of conduct.

It said: “The realpolitik observed by some ministers in these circumstances appears to have produced a number of advisers with wide powers and influence who were appointed and operated in practice outside the code of conduct for special advisers.”

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