Stormont Castle doesn't deny that it secretly changed the law

Stormont Castle has issued a hugely unusual and aggressive statement in an attempt to rebut criticism in the wake of Saturday's News Letter revelations about how it appointed a new political spin doctor.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 19th September 2016, 7:41 am
Updated Wednesday, 5th October 2016, 2:42 pm
Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness
Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness

However, Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness’s department has not denied the central fact revealed by this newspaper – that they changed the law in secret in order to bypass normal fair employment rules.

The First and deputy First Ministers used prerogative powers which they exercise on behalf of the Queen to ensure that they could appoint a journalist as their top spin doctor without advertising the £75,400-a-year post.

There is no suggestion that David Gordon – the respected investigative journalist who last week announced that he was leaving his job as editor of the Nolan Show to become Executive press secretary – has broken any rules and it is not even clear whether he was aware of the process behind his appointment.

The cartoonist Brian John Spencers take on Saturdays News Letter revelations

On Saturday afternoon, TEO released a first statement defending the process and containing unusually party political points in criticising the Opposition.

The statement included the line: “The reality of opposition, and its powerlessness, is now starting to dawn on those who failed to persuade the electorate that they could be trusted to lead.”

Then, a second statement was issued from Stormont Castle yesterday. In the hugely unusual ten-point ‘briefing note’ sent to ‘all media and print journalists’ yesterday, The Executive Office (TEO) said: “The story can be summed up in one sentence: Ministers use ministerial powers to make ministerial appointment.”

In what was a quintessential ‘non-denial denial’ beloved by political spin doctors, the statement said: “The Executive Office has supplied the relevant Order to any media outlet that requested it and has provided media with details of the legislation under which the appointment was made since it was announced. To suggest there was any ‘secret’ is stretching credibility to breaking point.”

The cartoonist Brian John Spencers take on Saturdays News Letter revelations

However, although that sounded like an unequivocal denial, it was carefully worded to avoid actually denying that the law change took place in secret and remained thus until the News Letter asked for a copy of the order last week.

On Friday, the News Letter asked TEO if anyone outside of the department – with the exception of Mr Gordon – had known about the order before it became law. TEO did not answer that question.

On Saturday, Mr Gordon told a journalist from the BBC – for which he remains employed, though in a non-editorial position – that he could not comment on the issue.

Surprise at tone of ‘arrogant’ response

Yesterday veteran journalists and political pundits expressed surprise at the tone of the Executive ‘briefing note’ issued in response to Saturday’s News Letter revelations.

The writing style, tone and ten-point structure of the statement was dramatically different to the generally matter-of-fact press releases which civil servants issue on behalf of Stormont departments.

The statement included the line: “In a few weeks, David Gordon will be at his new desk helping us in [governing]. It is extremely useful that he has been given an early insight into the vacuousness and double standards on Opposition benches.”

News Letter columnist Alex Kane described the ‘briefing’ document as “a snarly, arrogant, we-are-better-than-you response to genuine concerns that have been raised”.

The Press Association’s Ireland Editor, David Young, who has reported on Stormont for years, described it as having a “remarkably confrontational tone” and said it was “presumably written by Angry McAngry”.

Former News Letter editor Darwin Templeton – now the managing editor of the Sunday Life – commented that there was “some very un-Civil Service like language coming out of the Civil Service these days”.

Irish Labour senator Mairia Cahill described it as “the most cheeky press release I’ve ever seen from a Government. Ever.”

Meanwhile, the Opposition leader, Mike Nesbitt, has asked for the press secretary appointment process to be on the agenda at Wednesday’s meeting of the committee which scrutinises Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness’s department.

The UUP leader, who chairs the committee, said it was “beyond belief” that “a self-styled proud Republican like Martin McGuinness can bestow upon himself the powers of a Royal Prerogative” and questioned whether David Gordon was aware of the process behind the appointment.