In a week where there has been renewed criticism of the salaries and numbers of Stormont special advisers (Spads), a former DUP Spad has warned that the roles perform an important democratic function.
On Tuesday, the DUP and Sinn Fein joined forces to vote down a bill from Jim Allister which would have cut the maximum Spad pay from £92,000 to around £78,000, reduced the Spads in Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’s office from eight to four and made the advisers accountable under the Civil Service Code of Conduct.
A total of 19 Spads – the bulk of whom are from the DUP and Sinn Fein – last year cost a total of £1,967,240 in salaries, national insurance contributions, pension contributions and severance payments.
Mr Allister accused the DUP and Sinn Fein of forming an “unholy alliance” founded on “brazen self-interest”.
Former DUP Spad Wallace Thompson said that he detected “a lot of cynicism among the public about the whole thing, with people thinking that there’s nothing happening at Stormont”.
Mr Thompson, a founding member of the DUP, declined to comment on this week’s debate, which focused on the numbers and cost of Spads rather than on the principle of having Spads.
And he pointed out that the figures currently being debated are very different to those which most Spads received just a few years ago when he was in Stormont. “It wasn’t the sort of money that I was on,” he said.
The former adviser to Nigel Dodds when he was enterprise minister and then finance minister between 2007 and 2009, said that the concept of Spads “must be protected”.
He said that when he was in the NIO as a civil servant prior to becoming a Spad he knew that many of his colleagues were sceptical about the advisers.
And he said that in 2007 it had been a further “culture shock” to many civil servants used to decades of non-interventionist direct rule ministers to have a politically driven agenda from a locally elected Executive. Spads played an important democratic role in that, he said.
“There is a need for somebody between the minister and officials to make the system work more effectively,” he said. “I saw my role as a two-way conduit between the officials and the minister. Hopefully the role I played smoothed things and made the officials aware of the minister’s specific political agenda.”
However, another former DUP Spad, Graham Craig, said that he had supported Mr Allister’s bill. Mr Craig, a former adviser to Sammy Wilson who is now a UUP councillor, said he had always thought that he was bound by the civil service code of conduct and added: “Jim was hardly proposing to cut their wages by that much.
“It just demonstrates what the DUP and Sinn Fein have become – a self-serving elite.”
Mr Craig added that he had been paid “around 25 per cent” below the £78,000 maximum proposed by Mr Allister and said that he had earned an equivalent salary in the job which he did immediately prior to becoming an Spad and in his employment since.