There is a need for Spads, not all of whom behaved the same way

The RHI Inquiry has allowed a glimpse into the inner workings of Stormont. Pictured here is Sir Patrick Coghlin, making a statement at a preliminary hearing
The RHI Inquiry has allowed a glimpse into the inner workings of Stormont. Pictured here is Sir Patrick Coghlin, making a statement at a preliminary hearing

The Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry has thrown a spotlight on the extraordinary behaviour of some DUP Special Advisers, the infamous Spads.

But nobody should believe all Spads behaved, or were treated, the same way.

David Ford

David Ford

Spads were first appointed at Westminster to prevent the civil service becoming politicised.

Ministers were empowered to appoint one person to be a temporary civil servant.

Codes of Conduct were drawn up to make clear their role was to provide political advice to the minister, liaise with their party and represent the minister in general discussions.

When it became likely I would be elected as justice minister in 2010, I considered what I would need from a Special Adviser.

My priorities were: intellectual ability to grasp complex issues; understanding how government works; knowledge of Alliance policy; the personality to relate to other parties and to civil servants; and, above all, someone whom I could trust entirely.

I drew up a shortlist of people whom I considered met these criteria and, to my great satisfaction, my first choice agreed to take the post if I were elected minister.

After my election, the necessary paperwork was completed by me and by the department, with no input from Alliance.

The permanent secretary, without reference to me, determined the appropriate salary.

I am satisfied both in his appointment, and in his work for over six years, my adviser and I fully complied with the regulations, in both the spirit and the letter.

My Spad assisted me in analysing detailed policy papers as we introduced a major programme of new legislation and reforms to prisons and youth justice.

He gave general advice to Department of Justice officials about ministerial priorities, but without in any sense directing them.

He liaised with Alliance Party representatives as we sought to implement the policies I introduced, taking account of civil service advice.

He also worked to secure the support of other political parties for my agenda, and on at least one occasion, the Alliance minister’s Spad had to reconcile differences between DUP and Sinn Féin Spads to ensure our legislation could proceed.

All of these issues were appropriate for a Special Adviser and were carried out in an appropriate way.

On the other hand, the RHI Inquiry has heard evidence that DUP Spads were party appointees allocated to – not appointed by – ministers; that they acted in a quasi-ministerial role; and they were in some cases more powerful than elected ministers.

All of these breached the regulations.

The evidence suggests that when Jonathan Bell was enterprise minister, neither he nor his Spad considered issues in detail and they had a toxic relationship, not one built on trust.

Arlene Foster tried to distinguish between being ‘accountable’ and ‘responsible’ for her Spad’s behaviour.

That brought to mind angels dancing on the head of a pin: it is not an appropriate description of what the relationship should be.

I believe there is a need for Spads in the current system of government across the United Kingdom, and perhaps in Northern Ireland in particular.

But they are only a benefit if they behave properly.

My hope is the RHI Inquiry will restore the system to its original purpose, and if the executive returns all Spads and their ministers will act in accordance with the regulations.

The days of some parties feeling they are above accountability must end.

Action must be taken against those who abused their positions, including the potential of prosecutions if the law was broken.

• David Ford is a former MLA for South Antrim and leader of the Alliance Party. He was the first Minister of Justice from 2010 to 2016