The secret use of royal privileges by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister is to be investigated by an Assembly committee after it emerged it has been used on three occasions since 2008.
The details emerged in a response to a written question submitted by Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt. He made the enquiry following the revelation that Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness and DUP leader Arlene Foster used the Royal Prerogative to appoint a senior BBC journalist David Gordon as Stormont’s new #75,000-a-year Press Secretary.
The Executive has now admitted the Prerogative powers were secretly used on two other occasions, in 2008 and 2010, by McGuinness and then DUP leader Peter Robinson, also in regard to public appointments.
The extraordinary royal powers essentially enabled the ministers to amend employment law without the need for approval by the wider Assembly. Their use is now to be probed by an Assembly committee.
Commenting on the information released on Wednesday, Mr Nesbitt said: “We have the bizarre situation where Martin McGuinness, someone who would style himself as a ‘principled republican’, has now exercised the powers of a monarch on three occasions.
“One would have to question what other ‘principled republicans’, like Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers, who spent so long at Her Majesty’s pleasure, would make of it all.”
Last week, Mr McGuinness dismissed criticism over the matter from opposition parties, adding he felt “absolutely grand” using royal powers to facilitate Mr Gordon’s appointment.
He dismissed jibes from the SDLP and UUP benches, including one reference to him as “your highness” and a comparison with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: “The use of prerogative powers is a tool open to the government but to exercise it in secret and exclusively in relation to public appointments and recruitment raises very serious questions about the judgement of the first and deputy first ministers.
“The nationalist community suffered at the hands of secret and unfair recruitment processes in the past, this is a throwback to a form of government that the devolution set-up was designed to shatter.”
But Mr McGuinness said he was “not in the least concerned” about a debate he said was confined to the internet. He described the controversy as a “two day wonder” perpetuated by “anoraks”.
“Anything that benefits the working of the Executive and, by extension, enriches the lives of the people we represent, is a good thing,” McGuinness told Assembly members. “I have done many things over the course of the last 20 years, none of which I am ashamed of whatsoever because I think my contribution to this process has put us all where we are today.”