The man who is credited with being the unseen brains behind the DUP’s transformation over almost two decades has left his role, the News Letter can reveal.
Richard Bullick, who was brought into the party in 2000 by Peter Robinson, has served as a key aide under three successive DUP first ministers and was until January the senior special adviser to Arlene Foster.
When Sinn Fein’s decision to collapse the Executive ejected Mrs Foster as first minister, Mr Bullick lost his £92,000-a-year job and since then he has been working for the party.
However, yesterday he left that role to take up a senior position at a Belfast lobbying and public relations firm.
Sam McBride: Though largely unknown outside Stormont, Richard Bullick was one of the DUP’s key assets
Last night the party stressed that the former head of its policy unit had left on good terms, something which other DUP sources confirmed.
Nevertheless, some DUP members are uneasy about the departure of such a crucial architect of the modern DUP at such a critical point for the party and for unionism.
The DUP is still reeling from a disastrous Assembly election result, is weeks away from a second electoral test on June 8 and is facing tough negotiations with a reinvigorated Sinn Fein over whether devolved government can be resurrected.
One DUP source told the News Letter of their dismay at Mr Bullick’s departure: “Peter Robinson and Richard Bullick were the strategic brains within the DUP. With Peter having already gone, this is a hammer blow for unionism. It’s also a blow for the talks – he and Robinson were the deal-makers.”
Other senior DUP sources cautioned against interpreting his departure as indicative of a belief by him or the party that devolution will not be returning for a considerable period.
When contacted yesterday by the News Letter, Mr Bullick confirmed that he had moved to the new role but declined to comment further.
In a statement, MCE Public Affairs – where he will be head of public affairs – said that it was “delighted” to appoint Mr Bullick to the role.
MCE managing director Paul McErlean said: “Richard is widely respected and he has a wealth of experience and insight at all levels of government, which we believe will be of real benefit to our clients.”
He added: “This appointment shows that the brightest and best people can be attracted to public relations and public affairs, thereby lifting the standard of our services and the value we bring to our clients.”
A DUP spokesman said that the party was “sad that he is moving on” but stressed that he left on good terms.
“Richard is a very able and talented person who has been involved in working for the party since 2000 and has had a very significant input into the party since then,” he said. “Everyone in the party recognises the talent which he has.”
The spokesman added that Mr Bullick remained “very supportive” of the party and was expected to continue to “offer advice and guidance” in the future.
For many years, Mr Bullick has been a hugely influential figure within Stormont.
Leaked US State Department cables reveal that it was Mr Bullick who briefed US diplomats on behalf of the First Minister at key points of political instability, including the street disorder surrounding the 2012 flag protests.
The former barrister was perpetually by the side of first ministers as they travelled to Downing Street or the White House and Dublin and during the many fraught negotiations at points where the peace process appeared to be in some peril over more than a decade.
One DUP member who has worked closely with Mr Bullick said that he had “a recall for detail which probably nobody else in the party has”.
Mr Bullick also helped craft some of Peter Robinson’s most significant speeches as he attempted to re-shape the DUP in the years after he succeeded Dr Paisley in 2008 until his retirement at the start of last year.
Spads received several months’ worth of severance pay, but several are now believed to be looking for work due to the uncertainty about when devolved government will return.
Mr Bullick will be a witness to the RHI inquiry into the cash for ash scandal, although unlike other some other Spads who have faced allegations (which they deny), the questions for Mr Bullick are likely to largely centre around his account of a disputed meeting between Mrs Foster and her then minister Jonathan Bell at which each minister had made claims about each other’s behaviour.
In their recent book ‘The DUP in Northern Ireland: From Protest to Power’, Jon Tonge et al say: “The roles of Timothy Johnston and Richard Bullick,...were important in bringing a forensic approach to the renegotiation of the Belfast Agreement... Johnston and Bullick, alongside a small number of senior DUP elected representatives, helped develop the party’s transition from the politics of outright opposition to a position which fused principles with pragmatism.”