The government changed the rules to allow Departments set their own rate of pay for special advisers and help avoid embarrassing negotiations over salary caps.
Ministers were told that when hiring special advisers, it was up to them where they would be placed on a salary scale, as long as they stayed between an annual pay rate of between €79,000 and €91,000.
Prior to that, individual Departments had to seek sanction from the Department of Public Expenditure and make a business case for bringing anybody on staff at anything except the bottom rung of the salary scale.
That system had led to considerable embarrassment after the formation of the 2011 coalition when Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s personal intervention to secure a €127,000 salary for adviser Ciaran Conlon caused major controversy.
Needless to say, there are no such special arrangements in place elsewhere in the public service for nurses, gardai, teachers and others who all join at the lowest rate.
A number of senior special advisers have been given special pay deals by their own Departments but without requiring sanction from the Department of Public Expenditure.
In the case of former TV3 news anchor Alan Cantwell, he has been awarded a bumper salary of €91,624 – the fifth point on the adviser pay scale.
This is despite the fact that all entrants to the public service normally start on the first point of the scale, which in this case would have been €79,401.
Mr Cantwell was hired by Enterprise Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor, one of two special advisers she has taken on.
A statement from that Department said: “A decision was taken by the Secretary General, in consultation with the Minister, to place Mr Cantwell on point five of the principal standard scale in light of the role Mr Cantwell has taken on.”
Similarly, at the Department of Health, one of Minister Simon Harris’ appointments has been given a pay rate well above the first point on the salary scale.
According to documents obtained under FOI, adviser Majella Fitzpatrick has been hired on a salary of €91,624. She had previously been Director of Communications for Fine Gael and previously for IBEC.
At the Department of Housing, one of Simon Coveney’s appointments has also been brought in at a much higher rate than would normally apply to new public service entrants.
Bob Jordan – the former chief executive of housing organisation Threshold – has been given a salary of €88,936, according to internal Departmental documents.
A statement from his Department said: “Both his qualifications and experience are specifically relevant to the key issues covered by this Department. Mr Jordan was put on a point on the appropriate pay scale which reflects his experience and expertise.”
The only salaries for special advisers that appear to have actually required sanction from Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe relate to two appointments made by Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar and also Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald.
For the Varadkar appointment, a letter was sent seeking permission to continue paying Brian Murphy €99,370-per-year, which was the rate already agreed during the previous government.
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald also looked for a higher rate of pay for her adviser Marion Mannion, with a bump in pay from €87,258 to €93,297 to reflect her “higher duties and responsibilities” as the Tánaiste’s adviser.
The change to the rules allowing the salary scale variations is buried in a 56-page guide to ministerial appointments.
It says: “While appointments should normally be on the first point of the scale, Secretaries General have delegated sanction to approve any increment on the … scale where they are satisfied that this is justified.”
The Department of Public Expenditure said Budget 2015 had delegated sanction for appointments to individual Departments as long as they stayed within their “pay allocation”.
They said the subsequent decision to allow them choose any point on the standard scale for advisers followed “the same rationale”.
You can read the full set of guidelines for ministerial appointments here.