Top DUP civil servant admits to hierarchy of political advisers

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The DUP’s chief executive has admitted a hierarchy of political special advisers (spads) existed within the Northern Ireland party.

Timothy Johnston told a public inquiry into the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) that while there was no formal structure of “spad rankings”, he “absolutely acknowledged” he was one of the most senior special advisers.

“I recognise the fact that I have probably been perceived – though it’s probably overstated in the media – of the importance of my role,” he said.

He agreed his input on political matters might have been given “more weight”, adding that people came to him about general queries.

The RHI inquiry also heard on Friday how there was a “great drive to centralise power” within the DUP in its appointment of spads within the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Mr Johnston accepted there was an “element of centralisation” in the appointment process.

In his evidence to the public inquiry, Mr Johnston admitted the party process in appointing special advisers was not transparent and did not “comply with the letter and the spirit” of the legislation that was passed in the Assembly.

Sir Patrick Coghlin, chairman of the RHI inquiry, said the process in how the DUP appointed its special advisers and its code which the Assembly passed, were “two utterly divorced structures”.

He said it could not be a “satisfactory situation from a democratic point of view” if the codes were being ignored.

Mr Johnston also said there was a “disparity” in the appointment process from department to department and it was not done in a “consistent way”.

Mr Johnston also said he did not think former DUP minister Jonathan Bell was capable of heading the Department of Enterprise or capable of “any senior role”.

“I was not in favour of him being junior minister,” he added.

“It wasn’t that he wasn’t capable but the effort wasn’t always put in. There was a glamour to being junior minister.

“I feel a little uncomfortable. I feel torn in the sense of having to say this in public.

“A lot of people thought he was over-promoted.”

He told the inquiry he advised former First Minister Peter Robinson not to appoint Mr Bell as Enterprise Minister.

He added Mr Bell was “very loyal” to Mr Robinson and he was rewarded for this.

“Mr Robinson is his own man and makes his own decisions,” Mr Johnston added.

Mr Johnston also said he does not believe “we would be where we are today” if Mr Bell had not been given the job at DETI.

Mr Johnston also revealed it took ten days for Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness to agree the joint letter about Brexit that was then sent to the UK prime minister in 2016.

He was referring to how parts of the Northern Ireland political system worked adding that he could say “a lot of things that could deflate people”.

“We didn’t want the public to see the elements of the sausage machine because it wasn’t always pretty,” he said.

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