Questions over appointment of Stormont spin doctor

David Gordon has been a sharp critic of Stormont over many years
David Gordon has been a sharp critic of Stormont over many years

Pressure is mounting on the Executive over its decision to bypass normal recruitment rules to appoint a journalist as its new press secretary.

On Tuesday, Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness announced that David Gordon, the editor of the Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster, would be taking over in the new role as senior spokesman for the Stormont administration.

Appointing the respected former Belfast Telegraph political editor to the post caused surprise in political and media circles, given Mr Gordon’s sharp criticism of how Stormont has conducted itself.

But the first minister and deputy first minister presented the appointment as evidence of a new era in how business will be done at Stormont and stressed that it had been a joint decision by the DUP and Sinn Fein.

It is expected that Mr Gordon will give on the record briefings on behalf of Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness, meaning that he could become the public face of the Executive, alongside its ministers.

The £74,500-a-year post was not advertised and appears to be akin to the role of a special adviser (Spad) – on top of the Spads already within the Stormont system.

The Executive Office has said that Mr Gordon will not be a civil servant. But the process whereby he has been appointed remains unclear and there remains ambiguity as to whether he will be senior to the large team of press officers who are civil servants in the Executive Information Service.

No party has suggested that Mr Gordon – who has built up a reputation for being tough on politicians from across the political spectrum – is not qualified for the position, but there have been concerns about the decision of the Executive not to advertise such a senior post.

The News Letter asked the Northern Ireland Civil Service Commissioners whether they had given written approval for the merit principle to be set aside for the appointment. However, a spokeswoman said that they had no comment at this time.

And, in a brief statement, the Commissioner for Public Appointments did nothing to suggest satisfaction with the procedure behind the appointment.

The statement said that the commissioner “was not involved in this appointment process for Executive Press Secretary and was not aware of it until it was publicly announced. It is not at all clear what or if any process was followed by the department.”

The Executive has said that “there is no requirement upon ministers to advertise the post”. To date, the Executive had not responded to several News Letter questions.

Opposition parties have raised a series of questions about the appointment.

The TUV leader Jim Allister on Wednesday tabled a priority written question to the first and deputy first ministers – meaning that it should be answered within two days, though they frequently miss that supposed deadline – to ask them “to detail the process by which the post of Executive Press Secretary was recently filled, including the advertising process and the number of applicants short listed and interviewed”.

Seperately, Opposition leader Mike Nesbitt said: “Is it coincidence that this appointment comes at a time when Stormont has its first official opposition?”

Mr Nesbitt has sent a series of questions to the first and deputy first minister.

Among the questions, Mr Nesbitt asked about Mr Gordon’s status, the process under which he was appointed and whether there was “a period when he had accepted the post but continued to work as editor of the Nolan Show at BBC NI”.

Mr Nesbitt also asked why Stormont was bolstering its press office operation at a time when a £700 million voluntary redundancy scheme is trying to reduce the size of the public sector in Northern Ireland.

And in a statement the SDLP said: “If an open recruitment process is good enough for a new head of the Civil Service, then why isn’t it good enough for a new head of the Executive Press Office?

“Government appointments without any open competition hark back to an era when many people here were deliberately excluded from civil service jobs. There should be an immediate open competition for this position, just like there is for every other senior civil service job.”