Foster and McGuinness used Royal authority to avoid competition for their head new spin doctor

There’s irony in the appointment of my old mucker David Gordon (a once fierce and dogged journalist) comes on foot of what we might have called in the Northern Ireland Water days a ‘single tender action’ (STA).

No blame attaches to David of course, but it’s ironic that he was first to break the sacking in 2010 of four expert non-executive directors of Northern Ireland for allowing too many of these STAs.

In a large concern like NI Water there’s always a justification for a small number of these actions. Contract over runs or the shortage of available talent. [In this case there is no such clear case.]

As David reported at the time, when he wrote, “NI Water contracts were awarded without competitive processes, leaving the company unable to demonstrate value for money for taxpayers”. [Emphasis added]

Back then the SF’s Minister’s case unravelled, leading to the suspension of a Permanent Secretary for the first time in the history of the NI Civil Service and a successful libel action against the party’s press office.

In case of Gordon’s appointment, it’s still not clear even to the poor old Commissioner for Public Appointments and even the Civil Service Commission why this particular ‘STA’ was embarked upon.

That’s because the Executive Office secretly changed the law:

Responding to a News Letter request, Stormont Castle has now released a copy of the two-page order which was signed by the two ministers on 8 September and became law the following day It is headed: “Order of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly”.

Because the change made under what is effectively delegated Royal authority, the ‘Civil Service Commissioners (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2016’ will not even come before the Assembly’s Examiner of Statutory Rules, a watchdog who examines secondary legislation.

As Sam McBride ryely comments:

The law change was passed under the same principle which allowed medieval kings to issue decrees without consultation, something which the 18th century English jurist Sir William Blackstone defined as “that special pre-eminence which the King hath, over and above all other persons…in right of his regal dignity”.

This arbitrary/medieval power is a fundamental feature of the constitutional monarchy, even if it’s rare to see it used quite so blatantly. As Jim Allister told Sam:

“I am astounded by the audacity of the First Ministers in purporting to use ‘prerogative powers’ to arbitrarily amend legislation to give themselves power to make a civil service appointment, which circumvents the application of ‘the merit principle’, so that they can have a hand-picked spin doctor to add to the legions of press officers already in place. This, in my view, is a brazen abuse of power.

This brings to 161 the total number of Stormont Spin Doctors. Maybe they just think there isn’t anyone left who isn’t out to ‘get’ them? Whatever, the problem of accountability of Stormont hasn’t gone away, you know?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • babyface finlayson

    What are you suggesting about Sam McBride’s sobriety when writing?

  • mickfealty

    Long time no see Babyface. In answer to your question: nothing. Next?

  • Brendan Heading

    This arbitrary/medieval power is a fundamental feature of the constitutional monarchy

    I think that people are getting a bit overexcited talking up the vagaries of the British constitution. Executive powers such as this exist in all democracies, and are often controversial. Had the UK been a republic this power would still exist, it just wouldn’t be couched in regal terms.

    The real story here is the government – specifically, a government with a major party which defines itself as committed to the pursuit of equality and fairness – bypassing fair employment legislation and the civil service’s own recruitment procedures in order to appoint a senior press officer.

    If the government approached causes, other than what it evidently feels is an overarching need to present its own case effectively, with this kind of enthusiasm and determination, the country would be in much better shape.

  • Gopher

    Can a bill be introduced to limit the budget for pesos officers

  • babyface finlayson

    That’s all I’ve got. As you wryly suggest!
    Now I’m off for a whiskey, brewed ryely, with my friend Ignatius P.

  • Mac an Aistrigh

    Something awry?

  • babyface finlayson

    Yuk yuk!

  • babyface finlayson

    I seem to have upvoted my own comment.
    I didn’t even know I could do that.

  • Nevin

    Nice one, bf; some typos are irresistible!

    In the style of J D Salinger, author of “The Catcher in the Rye”, David Gordon’s response to, say, a journalist’s question re. a TEO statement might be, “I don’t know exactly what they meant by that but they meant it”.

    This new role presents a gift to Brian Spencer to do a cartoon, “One the one hand … on the other hand”.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Yep – The Gangsters up on the hill continuing to abuse politics and add another few more percentage to the numbers who will not be voting at next elections ! but sure as long as the Spinning Wheel keeps going round and round !

  • Nevin

    That TEO own goal and a top spin doctor being paid less than the SpAd average working wage. A variation on An TEOrainn’s Law?

  • Nevin
  • SeaanUiNeill

    I’m waiting for the day, myself, when only actual politicians turn up to vote,

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Easily done when one is looking to see who approves, but click again and it disappears. Self-upvoting is possible on Disqus but is frightfully bad form really………..

  • babyface finlayson

    That worked.
    Very helpful thanks.