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