Stormont’s glut of special advisors giving rise to party honours system?

In yesterday’s Irish News, Brian Feeney cast a particularly penetrating light on a peculiar aspect of Northern Ireland’s political settlement, the secretive lives of its many special advisors…

Another reason for the restraint of all Stormont parties about Sinn Fein’s appointment is that starting a shouting match runs the real issue which is the matter of special advisors as a species.

We have nineteen of them in the north, eight of them in the Office of First and Deputy First Minister alone.

To place that in perspective the British Government has all of 60. To scale that up per head of population to match Stormont’s profligacy would require the British government to employ 2,400 special advisors. That’s how bad Stormont is.

In Scotland with three times the population, the ministerial code stipulatesa maximum of twelve special advisors. The Scottish first minister is responsible for appointing all of them. What’s more important the Scottish Parliament publishes their numbers, names and pay bands as well as full information on unpaid advisors.

The British government does the same. Not our lot. The Stormont ministerial code is silent on the subject of special advisors. The parties won’t even tell you the names even though we are paying for them.

I won’t quote more (the column is almost worth a week’s online subscription in and of itself), but suffice to say he observes that Sinn Fein have been using some of these posts as an unofficial party honours system, rather than for individuals who have been ‘distinguished experts in their professional fields’.

Which, in itself, begs a whole other set of questions…

  • “Which, in itself, begs a whole other set of questions…”

    Like why hasn’t the MSM explored their roles in detail already. It’s not as if there haven’t been enough mentions here on SO’T …

  • 241934 john brennan

    Ex-convicts are never employed in the public and civil service in any capacity, unless any previous convictions are ‘spent’. Those serving more than two and a half years imprisonment for any offence, never mind murder, are barred even from cleaning jobs in government offices, schools, etc. Neither will such persons ever get a license to drive a taxi etc.

    One law for the plebs and another for those categorised as ’ex-combatants’ ?

    Anyway, by what stretch of imagination can the term ‘combatants’ be applied to members of an armed gang, sneaking up behind an innocent family leaving a Sunday church service, with the deliberate intention of murdering them?

  • I’m tired of people scaling up the numbers of politicians, civil servants, advisers etc. in NI by ratio of population compared to somewhere else (which is always larger). It’s as meaningless as saying that if an ant was the size of a human it would be able to lift a bus. You can’t scale up ants without taking account of physical constants, and you can’t scale up governments without taking account of overheads. It takes a similar number of officials to draft a law whether that law applies to a million people or a hundred million people. Or to take it to logical extremes, if the UK can survive with one education minister, is NI supposed to make do with an elbow?

    NI is overgoverned, but trite comparisons like this weaken the argument.

  • New Yorker

    Brian Feeney raises a good issue. Why are there any special advisers to politicians on public pay? Before the ratio comes the question of why have any at all? Are they any benefit to the public who pay their salary and expenses? Hopefully journalists will take up the issue.

  • aquifer

    Spot on Andrew

    We need to draft legislation to comply with EU directives or pay big fines, just like England.

    ‘to match Stormont’s profligacy ‘

    No value judgement there at all

    Better pay advisors than have developers and lobbyists buy the MLAs.

  • Damian O’Loan

    It’s true that comparisons ignoring economies of scale are disingenuous at best, though the number of special advisors in OFMDFM is disproportionate and reflective an of over-centralised, ineffective government.

    The same false comparisons, though, are made regarding much more, notably the numbers of politicians and the size of the economy. As the mistake becomes an assumption in the media, they’ll find it difficult to object to more direct rule and less devolution arguments as the economy continues to struggle and in the long-term.

    An effective special advisor is worth the money to the taxpayer. Given the problems in the civil service exposed NI Water, they have a case to defend at the moment. The question is whether appointments are based on competence or not. Feeney missed the target; the problem is the loyalty reward system that exists in politics everywhere and damages appointment by merit.

  • PFX

    With all the sca surrounding the appointment of McCardle, the main issue around the whole idea of SPAds (as they like to refer to them on the Hill) is being missed.

    Every minister has one, they’re all “political” appointments, therefore not liable to public scrutiny. These people are getting paid £40-80k per year for a position with no accountability but the opportunity to influence ministerial decisions. There are essentially no requisite qualifications beyond knowing the right person.

    The system is similar in Scotland though Wales have had the vision to introduce competition for the posts and this is something which needs serious and urgent consideration here. It won’t happen though will it?

  • “Given the problems in the civil service exposed NI Water, they have a case to defend at the moment.”

    Can you expand this, Damian. DRD has a Minister and a SpAd from a different party now so I don’t know whether or not the previous occupants in these positions can still be held to account for actions they took or failed to take on problems pertaining to NI Water and other DRD matters.

  • Damian O’Loan


    No doubt all didn’t run to plan, but the role would demand that he or she should be the one to keep the Minister alert to any false assurances from the Permanent Secretary or others.

    More generally, there would be less SpAds if there were just one global dictator. It doesn’t make it a good idea.

  • New Yorker

    Damian O’Loan

    Can you explain, “An effective special advisor is worth the money to the taxpayer.”? Is their worth not to the politician and her/his party? If to the taxpayer, why not the usual civil service procedures in hiring?

  • Is there a list of the current Special Advisors which is not behind a paywall?