A former DUP special adviser has opened an unprecedented window into the kitchen cabinet of powerful aides around the DUP leader, one of whom he alleges wields far more authority than even senior elected DUP politicians such as deputy leader Nigel Dodds.
In an unvarnished account of how Northern Ireland’s biggest party does business, former special adviser (Spad) Timothy Cairns set out the ultra-centralised nature of the party, with real power residing in a tiny handful of Stormont Spads.
One of those Spads, Timothy Johnston – who since the collapse of Stormont has become the DUP’s chief executive – was and is so senior within the party, Mr Cairns said, that he is second only to the leader, putting the unelected figure above deputy leader Nigel Dodds, MPs, MLAs and even, prior to the collapse of devolution, Stormont ministers.
Speaking under an oath which compelled him to tell “the whole truth”, Mr Cairns, a long-standing DUP member who joined the party as a teenager and served as the party’s head of policy before becoming a Spad in 2012, said that while paid £92,000 a year from public funds to advise the first minister on departmental business Mr Johnston was acting as a de facto DUP chief executive who was involved in everything from discipline to choosing more junior Spads.
He said: “Mr Johnston’s influence was seen in the part from top to bottom”, with the former accountant operating in a role akin to that of a party chief executive yet Mr Cairns said that he did not believe that the party was paying Mr Johnston to perform that role.
That situation, he said, was true both under the leadership of Peter Robinson and then Arlene Foster.
He went on to set out a situation which if it is true would mean that the DUP acted unlawfully.
In evidence which tallies with that of Mr Bell last week, Mr Cairns said that the party broke the Stormont code for appointing Spads.
He said that “the difficulty is that whilst there is an official procedure, the Democratic Unionist Party exercised an unofficial procedure which took precedence”.
Sir Patrick Coghlin said that the DUP system was in many ways “in conflict with this code”, an assessment which Mr Cairns endorsed.
When asked what he did to get the party to adhere to the code, Mr Cairns said he did not believe “it was my place to ask the party officers to do that when they had made a decision”.
Key elements of the code involve a fair selection process and a central role for the minister, neither of which – on the evidence of Mr Bell and Mr Cairns – happened.
If that is correct, it would mean that the DUP were operating unlawfully because the terms of the Civil Service (Special Advisers) Act (Northern Ireland) 2013 state that all Spad appointments “shall be subject to the terms of the code”.
Mr Cairns said that he did not apply for the role or go through any formal process whatsoever. Instead, he said that the then first minister Peter Robinson came up to him at a DUP executive meeting, taking him into another room with Mr Johnston where he was informed that there would be a vacancy for a Spad to the then junior minister Jonathan Bell “and would I move from my position in the party to become a special adviser in his office”.
He said it was “a very brief meeting” with Mr Johnston telling him to report to Parliament Buildings four days later. Mr Cairns said that the minister who was nominally appointing him and who signed a false letter in relation to the process, Mr Bell, was not even in the room at the time.
He said that when Mr Bell then moved from being a junior minister to becoming enterprise minister he was given “five minutes’ notice” that he would be moving as Spad, with “no chance to object”, despite Mr Bell claiming in a letter to the civil service that he had again conducted a trawl for candidates before carefully coming to his decision.
He said that nobody got appointed as a Spad without the assent of Mr Johnston and that he, the first minister and senior Spad Richard Bullick formed the “triumvirate that would be...making those calls”.
Mr Cairns said that Mr Johnston was second only to the party leader and he believed that was how “all DUP elected representatives and party staff would have viewed it”.
In his written evidence to the inquiry Mr Johnston has denied that there was any hierarchy of Spads.
In written evidence, Mr Cairns said: “Timothy Johnston was/is a powerful individual within the DUP. He ran all matters relating to the party. When I was a party employee in the policy unit, even the mundane activity of communicating absences and sickness was attended to by Timothy Johnston.
“He controlled all party matters and was viewed as being the most senior DUP employee by elected representatives and staff.
“I believe that Mr Johnston in running party matters while a Spad was operating outside of what he was permitted to do. This would obviously be problematic for the DUP if the media were to get hold of the story.”
Mr Cairns said: “There’s not one elected representative, not one party employee or special adviser who did not recognise that Mr Johnston was very much at the top of the tree within the DUP.”
Sir Patrick put it to him that such a hierarchy was not consistent with the code, but was a practice enforced by the DUP, to which Mr Cairns said: “That’s correct.”