The powerful DUP figure who has been at the right hand of every DUP leader for 15 years has admitted that his party broke the law in appointing party members to lucrative special adviser posts.
In a bluntly vivid picture of Stormont which was a long way from the glossy spin which the DUP and Sinn Féin put on their administration at the time, Timothy Johnston, who is now the DUP’s chief executive, set that unlawful activity in the context of a culture whereby he said both parties routinely broke the rules in Stormont.
During a strikingly assured appearance before the RHI Inquiry – the first time the DUP’s key backroom figure has been interviewed in public – he also alleged that Sinn Féin broke at least the spirit of the law which barred them from appointing members with serious criminal convictions as Spads.
Mr Johnston, who before becoming a Spad was the DUP’s chief spin doctor, also did a significant U-turn in his evidence.
In written evidence to the inquiry, Mr Johnston had said “I had no sense that there was an understood or recognised hierarchy of advisers”.
However, after evidence from multiple witnesses – including DUP colleagues – that there was a de facto hierarchy with Mr Johnston either in a very senior position or “at the top of the tree”, he accepted that he was more powerful than many of his colleagues.
However, the 40-year-old insisted that he was not as powerful as his portrayal in the media would suggest.
Mr Johnston’s evidence brought to an end a bruising week for the DUP at the RHI Inquiry where many of its senior figures have revealed far more about how the party really operates than they would have wanted the public to know.
Documentation which the inquiry ordered senior DUP figures to hand over reveals internal feuding, suspicion and distrust.
Mr Johnston will return to give further evidence later in October and the inquiry will hear from at least one other senior DUP figure, Simon Hamilton.
The inquiry has heard evidence that many times when DUP ministers appointed Spads they signed false letters in which they claimed that they had examined a “pool of candidates” and chosen their Spad because they were “by far the best”.
In fact, they rarely appear to have looked at more than one candidate and on many occasions were simply allocated their Spad by the party leadership.
That is in breach of the Civil Service (Special Advisers) Act (Northern Ireland) 2013, which stipulates that all Spad appointments “shall be subject to the terms of the code”, a document which set out a series of processes which must involve the minister.
However, despite admissions from senior DUP figures – including leader Arlene Foster – that the party’s actions were contrary that law, there is unlikely to be any sanction as there are now no Spads in post whose appointments can be legally challenged.
Mr Johnston yesterday faced detailed questioning about the issue.
He said he believed that the false letters signed by DUP ministers had likely been a “tick-box exercise”.
He said he never recalled seeing such a letter for other Spads.
Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said: “I presume you have seen one or two now?”
Mr Johnston said: “Well I’m aware from what has been read at the inquiry...”
Sir Patrick said: “Mr Johnston, you are and have been a Spad to the first minister for a number of years...I’m assuming from that that you understand the importance of the matters into which this inquiry is enquiring.
“Now, I ask you again. I assume that you will have seen copies of these letters now?”
Mr Johnston said that he had not.
Sir Patrick later asked him: “Why was it necessary to ignore the act and the code? Was it because there was a great drive to centralise power in this party?”
Mr Johnston said: “I think, chairman, there certainly was an element of centralisation, yes.”
Then, in an apparent allusion to Sinn Féin and other parties, he said: “I think there was a sense of trying to mirror what was a very centralised operation for a number of the parties.”
He said the work Spads were required to do was “so difficult” that it meant there was a need for the individual to be drawn from the party and within the party there was a very limited pool of suitable people.
Sir Patrick said there was no real argument about the idea that Spads are a necessary and very useful part of democratic government but he queried “how does it come about that an ordinary person in the street - the person in Northern Ireland - whose governed by this arrangement, looking to see how a Spad is chosen, finds an act in 2013 which provides a clear and detailed mandatory code as to how Spads are chosen.
“That person, faced with the reality of your party - and it may well be other parties - would have no understanding of why you didn’t comply with the code, of why you didn’t amend the act.
“You’ve got two processes here – you’ve got an official, democratically-elected Assembly that passes an act and a mandatory code. But in reality you have a very centralised power structure which allocates Spads to ministers, which involves the first minister, which involves – as you’ve told us now – advice or guidance or information from the first minister’s Spads.
“Neither the first minister nor any other Spad is referred to in the code or has a role in the code. So you have two utterly divorced structures – one of which is adhered to, the other of which is the official one that anybody will see if they look it up...that is not adhered to. That cannot be a satisfactory situation from a democratic point of view.”
Mr Johnston said: “I accept from a transparency point of view, from a democratic point of view...”
Sir Patrick said: “Not just transparency, but you have a provision that sets out what you should be doing to democratically reflect the will of the Northern Ireland people - and you’re not doing that; quite the reverse.”
Mr Johnston said: “No, I accept that, I think, as time went on, things become very comfortable in the sense of how our party and other parties appointed these positions...”
Sir Patrick interjected: “I’m not saying other parties – that may well be – but we’re concerned, as you know, with a particular sequence of events.”
Mr Johnston said he did not think very much time was spent after an election in studying how Spads would be appointed – and said that that included by the Civil Service, who had a role in ensuring the rules were followed.
He added: “I just simply make the point that by 2016 the political reality of what was happening was as I have described to you, counsel, and I have to take it as exactly as you say...[we] didn’t get focused on the mandatory nature of the code, and I think where we ended up was a process that probably worked for the output of the system but didn’t comply with the letter and the spirit of what had been passed [into law].”
Mr Johnston said it was his view that “we would be better...either sticking to what the law is, if the law works – and if the law doesn’t work, then you look at something else and be honest about it and say ‘[Stormont] could learn some lessons from other legislatures...up to a point, because ultimately in the nature of the mandatory coalition and in the nature of the parties that make up that mandatory coalition and maybe where they’ve come from and where they’re at now even in terms of their development I think it may not always be possible to be as pure as what is done in other places.”
Sir Patrick said that the “real problem here” is that “you’re ignoring what the Assembly has passed; you’re building a very powerful centralised structure – and it is not in the least surprising, I think you’ll understand, that Spads involved in that structure will look to the central power holders, rather than to the minister, which is completely contrary to the code.”
Mr Johnston said: “I accept that”, and went on to say that “there were many things passed by the Assembly which didn’t always sit easy with the wider Executive and maybe sometimes were even ignored”.