The RHI Inquiry has revealed how Sinn Féin put in place a system of ‘super Spads’ in order to deliberately flout the intent of a law banning killers from being special advisers.
Under close questioning at the inquiry yesterday, former Sinn Féin Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir accepted that the party had disagreed with the legislation and – regardless of the fact that it failed to stop it becoming law – it had consciously acted to ensure that it would have no effect.
Aidan McAteer, then a Spad to Martin McGuinness, had been barred from that role after the Civil Service (Special Advisers) Act (Northern Ireland) 2013 which prevented those with serious criminal convictions such as murder from being paid up to £92,000 as Spads.
However, Mr Ó Muilleoir said that Sinn Fein put in place a structure to allow him to continue in his role as if nothing had happened.
Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said that it seemed Sinn Fein Spads “were being controlled” by someone who was not a Spad and who Mr Ó Muilleoir said he believed was paid from party funds.
The evidence, coupled with what has already emerged over the course of 108 days of inquiry hearings, adds to the sense that on some occasions both the DUP and Sinn Féin acted in ways which suggest they saw themselves as being quite literally above the law.
Mr McAteer has told the inquiry that he “co-ordinated and managed on a day to day basis the work of the advisers and wider SF Executive team under the authority and direction of [Martin McGuinness]”. He also said that he was co-ordinating Sinn Féin ministers.
Mr Ó Muilleoir said that Mr McAteer was “someone I would have seen as having a more weighty [sic] and more authority than any of the other special advisers”.
Initially, when asked if the ‘super Spad’ had managed the party’s ministers and Spads, the former minister said: “I’m not sure I would go with the word manage”.
However, Sir Patrick pointed out to him that it was Mr McAteer himself who had used that word.
Mr Ó Muilleoir then said: “Yes, I accept that...I accept the fact that he was managing all of us.”
Inquiry barrister Donal Lunny put it to the Sinn Féin MLA that although he was referring to Mr McAteer as a Spad, he was not officially a Spad. Mr Ó Muilleoir said that was because of the 2013 legislation barring such individuals from being Spads.
He said that Sinn Féin viewed that law as “an attack on the peace process by undermining the inclusion which is the heart of the peace process” and “it was not our intention to discriminate against former political prisoners who had helped build the peace so we continued to use I think certainly two people, perhaps three, perhaps four even, but in this case two people who had been political prisoners – Aidan McAteer and Paul Kavanagh. They retained their jobs. And of course Sinn Féin paid that wage.”
Later, under pressure to explain Mr McAteer’s contract – which suggested he was employed by the party’s chief whip, Caral Ni Chuilin, potentially through Assembly funds and therefore another stream of public money, Mr Ó Muilleoir said he could not be certain that he was paid by the party.
When asked if Mr McAteer’s continued role as a senior Spad was known to senior civil servants at the time, Mr Ó Muilleoir said: “I believe so, yes.”
Mr Lunny asked if Mr McAteer would have continued to be in the deputy First Minister’s office and interacting with the Head of the Civil Service, Sir Malcolm McKibbin.
Mr Ó Muilleoir said: “Absolutely. I don’t think there would have been any difference in Mr McAteer’s role pre and post the 2013 act in terms of how he would have behaved and done his job every day.”
Mr Ó Muilleoir said he was unaware of any senior civil servant raising concerns about the arrangement and that he was in contact with Mr McAteer “probably every day” receiving instructions or advice.
The South Belfast MLA said that he believed Mr McAteer was expected to be held to the same codes of conduct as other Spads and that Mr McGuinness would have expected him to act to standards “higher again than all the codes put together”.
Sir Patrick put to him that “it is important from a democratic, transparent point of view that there is a code that is mandatory, there is an act passed by the Assembly – those are democratic standards”.
Mr Lunny highlighted that Mr McAteer’s terms and conditions of employment did nothing to suggest that he was bound by the same rules as Spads and was instead bound by a party code which stressed that he should act to protect the party’s interests.
The inquiry was told that Mr McAteer’s contract referred to him having a role in the Assembly – not the Executive – which involved overseeing an MLA research team and other duties which do not appear to reflect what he was actually doing.
Mr Ó Muilleoir accepted it would be better to make it clear he was subject to the Spad code but said he could not explain why it had not been the case. He said that “Sinn Féin was not going to change its employment practices and discriminate against people who...because of the law passed in 2013 which we opposed”.
Sir Patrick highlighted that the mandatory code for Spads said “they should avoid anything which might reasonably lead to the criticism that people paid from public funds are being used for party political purposes”.
Sir Patrick said that it seemed to him that all the Sinn Féin Spads “subjected themselves to management and coordination by an individual who was paid from party funds” in apparent conflict with the legal code.
He asked Mr Ó Muilleoir whether the party had set up its procedure “on the basis that the code didn’t apply to them”. Mr Ó Muilleoir said: “I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of that.”
Pressed by Sir Patrick, he went on to say that the situation arose because otherwise Mr McAteer would have been “barred from employment”.
Sir Patrick said that was wrong and the party could have employed him in any role other than as a Spad.