Unlike Alastair Campbell, David Gordon will not be able to give orders to civil servants

David Gordon with his book on the Paisleys
David Gordon with his book on the Paisleys

The Executive’s new top spin doctor will not be able to give orders to civil servants and will not himself have the status of a temporary civil servant, Stormont Castle has said.

Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness’s department has moved to clarify some key aspects of the new role after almost a week of appearing reluctant to answer important questions about the appointment.

On Saturday, the News Letter revealed that the First and deputy First Ministers used delegated Royal prerogative powers to secretly change the law to facilitate the appointment.

The ministers did so in order to avoid advertising the post and in a way which meant that the Assembly had no role in scrutinising the change, a revelation which prompted the leading UK legal commentator Joshua Rosenberg to ask: “What was there to hide?”

In the Assembly on Monday, Mr McGuinness faced personal jibes from Opposition MLAs over his willingness to use a Royal power.

But the deputy first minister resolutely stood over how he and the first minister have handled the situation.

He insisted that the Opposition was terrified in the face of an appointment which signalled a new coherency to what is now a more streamlined two-party Executive.

Mr McGuinness told MLAs that “there was absolutely no secrecy or underhand dealings” during the process, a comment which prompted laughter in the chamber and was followed by Jim Allister interjecting: “Except when you changed the law”.

But despite Mr McGuinness’s bullish tone, last night there was evidence of Stormont Castle being more open about the appointment by answering a News Letter question which last week it had failed to answer.

Yesterday – five days after this newspaper had initially asked The Executive Office (TEO) whether Mr Gordon will have the status of a temporary civil servant, as is the case with special advisers (Spads) – Stormont Castle confirmed that he will not and will instead sit in an entirely unique position within government.

In a statement which contains far more information than that which Martin McGuinness provided to the Assembly yesterday, TEO last night told the News Letter that Mr Gordon will be accountable directly to the first and deputy first minister.

The office also said that – unlike powerful and controversial New Labour spin doctors such as Alistair Campbell – the Executive press secretary will not be able to give instructions to civil servants.

Responding to a series of questions from this newspaper, Stormont Castle said: “The Executive Press Secretary is an entirely new post. He is not a civil servant and will not have the status of a temporary civil servant.

“The Executive Press Secretary is a fixed-term appointment, appointed using the Civil Service Commissioners (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland), and is not bound by the traditional civil service rules on political impartiality.

“He will not have the power to give direction to civil servants. He is appointed by the first minister and the deputy first minister and is directly accountable to them.”

Speaking earlier in the Assembly, Mr McGuinness had refused to set out what powers Mr Gordon will have.

Under Ulster Unionist questioning, the deputy first minister robustly defended the controversial process which led to the appointment, dismissing those who have criticised the method used as “anoraks”, who are “mostly on social media”.

When asked by UUP MLA Jo-Anne Dobson to set out the powers which the new press secretary will have, Mr McGuinness pointedly refused to answer, saying: “It is not a matter of what powers David Gordon will have. His responsibility, as a spokesperson for the Executive, will be to work very positively and constructively with everybody in the executive information service (EIS).”

Mrs Dobson then asked him how a “proud republican” felt in exercising the powers of a monarch.

“I feel grand, absolutely grand,” he replied.

“Anything that benefits the working of the Executive and, by extension, enriches the lives of the people we represent, is a good thing.

“I have done many things over the course of the last 20 years, none of which I am ashamed of whatsoever because I think my contribution to this process has put us all where we are today.”

During an Assembly sitting which was dominated by questions about the situation, Mr McGuinness branded the controversy a nonsensical “two-day wonder”.

Meanwhile, the Assembly has confirmed that there will be no role for the Examiner of Statutory Rules – who ensures that secondary legislation passed by ministers is within their powers – in scrutinising the legal change made by Stormont Castle.

In a statement, the Assembly said: “The Civil Service Commissioners (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2016 is not a matter for the Examiner of Statutory Rules as it is not subject to Standing Order 43.”

And the chair of the Civil Service Commissioners – the body which operates under and enforces the law which was changed by the ministers – said in a statement that the commissioners “were not consulted or engaged with in relation to [the change]”.

Meanwhile, Alliance deputy leader Naomi Long has criticised Assembly Speaker Robin Newton for yesterday refusing to trigger a mechanism which allows for Assembly discussion of a major issue in the news.

The Speaker – who was elected as a DUP MLA in the same constituency as Mrs Long – rejected Opposition attempts to have the revelations about David Gordon’s appointment debated first thing yesterday as a “matter of the day”.

Mr Newton argued that the proper forum for such queries was ministerial questions to Martin McGuinness, which also took place yesterday. Mr Newton refused to even hear points of order about his decision.

But both Jim Allister and Mrs Long vocally objected. Mrs Long said: “Clearly the use of prerogative powers by the Executive is a significant challenge to the integrity of the Assembly, and a deliberate and concerted attempt to circumvent the Assembly scrutiny process over which he is guardian ... this raises significant issues for the Speaker in terms of how he will use his position to protect the integrity of the Assembly ... and prevent government by decree.”