Sinn Féin circumvented a high profile law which meant that those with serious criminal convictions could not act as Stormont special advisers – and top civil servants knew of the situation, Timothy Johnston has said.
In evidence to the public inquiry into the RHI scandal, the DUP chief executive spoke in illuminating detail about his decade at the heart of power in Stormont Castle.
Freely admitting that neither the DUP nor Sinn Féin wanted transparency around how they operated, Mr Johnston said: “We didn’t always want the public to see the elements of the sausage machine because it wasn’t always pretty.”
Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick said drily: “It’s not.”
Mr Johnston outlined how Sinn Féin “effectively had people acting as special advisers but not in the proper function of a special adviser role”.
That happened after the passage of Jim Allister’s Spad bill into law.
Mr Allister’s legislation – tabled in response to public anger at the appointment of Mary McArdle, convicted of the murder of Mary Travers as she left Mass with her family – barred those with serious criminal convictions from operating as Spads.
However, the inquiry has uncovered documentary evidence that Sinn Féin appears to have side-stepped that by putting some of those with criminal convictions in a role which oversaw the special advisers.
Yesterday Mr Johnston expanded on the material which the inquiry had compelled Sinn Féin, the civil service and others to release.
He said that the situation was “known to senior civil servants”.
Sir Patrick asked why no one had raised the fact that Sinn Féin’s Spads were “being supervised by someone who can’t be a Spad because of the provisions of the act”.
Mr Johnston said: “I certainly recall raising it with the head of the civil service and I know others did.”
However, in a glimpse of Mr Johnston as an arch-pragmatist within the DUP, he said that “realpolitik” meant that “you weigh up in your mind ‘am I going to get a productive outcome by this type of approach, and by dealing with the people where the power lay, or am I better making a theological point about it’, and the likelihood was that it wasn’t going to change...most of what we did for many, many years was just pure, raw negotiation between two parties who were in the government but the line between what was a party negotiation and what was a government negotiation - I’m not sure that it was ever anything than blurred.”
He said that Executive business was resolved between the DUP and Sinn Féin “often to the exclusion of other parties who were also in the Executive”.
Mr Johnston said he could appreciate how if the man in the street was to come to Stormont “they’d probably head back out the door very quickly in great despair, as many of us who were in the system did many times”.
He said that he “was not saying that the end justified the means” but that often the process led to good outcomes for the public “and you weighed that with a greater weight in the balance than maybe the ugliness of how you got there”.
Sir Patrick said the inquiry understood the context of a mandatory coalition, but that there was a need to look at how it could be that politicians and civil servants exchanged letters which they knew not to be true.