Northern Ireland’s biggest party broke the law in appointing special advisers, inquiry hears

By on 01/10/2018 | Updated on 24/09/2020
DUP leader Arlene Foster has attempted to blame the civil service for her party breaking the law in appointing ministerial advisers.

Northern Ireland’s leading loyalist party routinely broke the law in how it appointed ministerial special advisors, a public inquiry has heard.

The inquiry was set up last year to examine the non-domestic renewable heating incentive (RHI) scheme, which offered financial incentives for businesses to use renewable fuels to generate heat. Flaws in the system caused a £490 million ($640m) overspend of public money, and it was eventually suspended to new applicants in early 2016.

The scandal led to the collapse of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive, which brought together the loyalist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and republican Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein’s then leader, the late Martin McGuinness, resigned in protest at the RHI’s mishandling and the country has been run by civil servants since March 2017. In the UK general election held soon afterwards, Conservative PM Theresa May lost her majority – since when the UK government has depended for its survival on the support of the DUP’s 10 Westminster MPs.

Swerving accountability

The DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster, helped set up the RHI scheme whilst serving as minister for enterprise, trade and investment. In her evidence to the inquiry she confirmed that the DUP centrally chose special advisers (spads) and allocated them to ministers, according to Northern Irish news website

This was in breach of the Civil Service (Special Advisers) Act (Northern Ireland) 2013, which states that spads must be chosen by the minister who appoints them. The rule is designed to ensure that the adviser is loyal to the minister, who can then be held accountable for their conduct.

The DUP’s practice of centrally appointing spads was revealed to the inquiry by former DUP minister Jonathan Bell, who succeeded Foster in the enterprise, trade and investment role, and his former spad Timothy Cairns. Bell, whose department ran the RHI, said that he had signed a false letter saying that he had chosen his spad when in fact he was given him against his wishes.

Alarm Bell

“The spad would be provided with instructions from DUP party officers, other ministerial spads, and myself. It follows that my spad owed duties to myself as the minister, to the department, and to the DUP as the political party who had appointed him,” Bell’s written evidence stated.

Instructions he gave to his spad were not necessarily followed, particularly if they conflicted with those provided by others, he added.

Foster, who voted in favour of the appointments law in the Northern Ireland Assembly, admitted that the appointment of spads in the DUP was “a matter for the party leader” but added that she thought the minister would be able to feed into that process. She also alleged that Sinn Fein acted in the same way.

Code ‘ignored’

Chair of the inquiry and former appeal court judge Patrick Coghlin said that it was “very difficult to understand how the two main parties, having been made – like everyone else – the subject of an act and a mandatory code, completely ignored that code and letters were written that simply did not record what had happened.”

Foster defended the practice and blamed civil servants for being part of the problem, saying that they had gone along with it.

Dave Penman, general secretary of civil service trade union the FDA, was scathing about Foster’s attempt to blame the civil service. He tweeted: “The former First Minister of Northern Ireland admits she deliberately broke a law she voted to bring in and her defence is to blame the civil service for not stopping her… *coughs.”

About Catherine Early

Catherine is a journalist and editor specialising in government policy and regulation. She writes predominantly about environmental issues and has held permanent roles at the Environmentalist (now known as Transform), the ENDS Report, Planning magazine and Windpower Monthly, and has also written for the Guardian, the Ecologist and China Dialogue. She was a finalist in the Guardian’s International Development Journalism competition 2009, and was part of the team that won PPA Business Magazine of the Year 2011 for Windpower Monthly. She also won an outstanding content award at Haymarket Media Group’s employee awards for data-led stories in Planning magazine. She holds a 2:1 honours degree in English language and literature from Birmingham University.

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