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‘Political advisers are like poisoners: either famous or good at their job’

A short history of political advisers in Ireland, from the early 1990s to today

Special advisers have become a fixture in Irish politics since the early 1990s, when the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition began their widespread appointment across government.

Their purpose was two-fold: manage the implementation of the agreed programme for government and avoid destabilising public rows between the parties.

In the latter case, the system was spectacularly unsuccessful – that coalition collapsed in a welter of acrimony two years after its formation. But the succeeding rainbow coalition of Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left retained the system, and every government since has continued it. Each minister appoints two advisers and each junior minister gets one. The party leaders have several advisers at their disposal.

Legally, advisers are non-established civil servants – they hold office only as long as their appointing minister. If the minister gets the chop, the adviser is out the door immediately. Typically, ministers will appoint a policy adviser and a media adviser. In addition, ministers receive policy advice from their departments and there is a press office full of civil servants available to every minister. But special advisers are political appointments, and their brief is explicitly political.


Conversations with several people who have held the role over the years suggest it is hard to pin down the exact responsibilities of a special adviser. One person who held the role in a number of governments in the 1990s and 2000s remembers going for a job interview subsequently and being asked what her responsibilities were. The best answer she could offer was: “Everything and nothing.” Another person agreed: “You can’t exactly go into an interview and say you were running the country. But you kind of were.”

“A special adviser is the extended political arm of the minister. You need to get on really well personally and politically with your minister – most do – otherwise rejection can occur,” said Cormac Lucey, an adviser to Michael McDowell in the Department of Justice from 2002 to 2007.

“Special advisers, like governesses, are beneath the family but above other servants, and that causes resentment,” said Gerard Howlin, an adviser to Bertie Ahern in the 1990s and 2000s. “Varying from the inconsequential to being ministers in mufti, they help ministers running against the clock outrun mandarins who have time on their side, stay alive on terrain strewn with landmines and win an election to enable them to do it again.”

Some are well-known, but most seek anonymity; better to do their quiet work, promoting their minister.

Another former adviser who served in two governments, quotes a British counterpart: “Special advisers are like poisoners: either famous or good at their job.”

There is little clear decision-making power, and no budget: the power in the job is the facility to persuade powerful people.

The original idea is that the adviser serves as an explicit link between the world of politics and the Civil Service. The Civil Service is there to implement the minister’s policy.

But the way they do it – the timetable, and the way it is communicated – are matters which have a profound political aspect, and that is where the advisers operate.

Another former adviser says they are “there to spot trouble” or, slightly more dramatically, “save ministers from disaster”.

He adds that they should be able to challenge the Civil Service on policy and also – and this is more important than ever – challenge outsiders such as NGOs and trade unions on policy. Some brief the media, officially or otherwise, very often on an off-the-record basis.

They are, on the whole, well-paid, with about two-thirds of the 69 advisers appointed by ministers in the current Government paid more than €100,000 a year. But the hours are long, the pressure can be intense – especially when their ministers find themselves in the midst of controversy – and they remain at the beck and call of politicians who can be frequently demanding, especially with an election on the horizon.

Many are former journalists and ultimately move on to lobbying, public relations or work in government affairs for major corporations, typically earning more money for less work.

Having left, many say they miss being on the inside – and also that they wouldn’t go back.