Northern Ireland Assembly passes special advisers bill

Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly yesterday gave final approval for legislation barring those with a serious conviction from taking up any political adviser role.

Special adviser debate

Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly yesterday gave final approval for legislation barring those with a serious conviction from taking up any political adviser role.

The Civil Service (special advisers) Bill was passed by 56 votes to 28 with the support of unionist and Alliance MLAs. Sinn Fein and the Greens voted against, while the SDLP abstained.

The legislation was brought forward by Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice Party, following the appointment three years ago of  Mary McArdle as a special adviser to the Sinn Fein culture minister, Caral Ni Chuilin.

The appointment sparked controversy since McArdle had been  prosecuted for her part in the murder of 23 year old Mary Travers in 1984, daughter of Tom Travers, a resident magistrate who had been the IRA’s intended target but survived despite being shot. McArdle was later released early from prison as part of the Belfast Agreement.

Whilst McArdle was eventually forced to step down from the post of adviser the episode left a bitter taste in the mouths of many in Northern Ireland.

In calling for the legislation to be known as ‘Ann’s Law’ in tribute to Mary Travers’ sister, Jim Allister told the assembly yesterday:

“This House – this community – owes a huge volume of gratitude to Ann Travers, who has done more than most politicians to raise awareness of an issue. She stuck by it courageously and relentlessly, even in the face of great personal difficulties with her health. That is a badge of the integrity and strength of the lady. This House – this community – owes a tremendous debt to that lady, who spoke with such compelling candour, honesty and persistence on behalf of all innocent victims.”

The SDLP had come under intense pressure over the legislation, having originally indicated that they might sign a petition of concern against the legislation, which requires 30 or more signatures and triggers a cross-community vote in the assembly in protest at the rejection of amendments tabled by the party including provisions for an appeal mechanism; but all their proposed amendments had been rejected.

Eventually, however, party leader Alasdair McDonnell confirmed that the SDLP would not block the Bill, scuppering the chances of a petition of concern being successful.

Accusing the SDLP of abandoning the Good Friday agreement, Sinn Féin MLA Daithí McKay said of the party’s stance:

“They have sold out the Good Agreement and the principles which underpin it. This legislation is discriminatory, sectarian and anti-Peace Process. It has set victim against victim as it has attempted to reinforce the hierarchy of victims that republicans and nationalists are all too well aware of. It is bad and flawed law.

“The clear message from the SDLP is that those who suffered at the hands of the British State are at the bottom of Alastair McDonnell’s pecking order of victims. Today his party refused to meet victims of State violence. That position says it all.

“Sinn Féin will continue to oppose discrimination in employment and in every other aspect of the operation of government. We will never accept discrimination and inequality and the opposition to this Bill will continue in the time ahead.”

However in declaring that the legislation reiterated the need for a comprehensive and ethical look at Northern Ireland’s past, Alasdair McDonnell commented:

“For the SDLP, this Bill and this debate has always been about victims – all victims – victims of the IRA, Loyalist and State forces. This is not about discrimination against ex-prisoners despite scaremongering from Sinn Fein. This is not about a hierarchy of victims, as Sinn Fein has been spinning.

“The SDLP’s position on victims has always been consistent and has always been clear. Some perpetrators in the conflict are victims, and as with all victims, their needs must be met. But there is a moral issue to this. Let me make it clear – there is no moral equivalent between the perpetrator who guns down or blows up an innocent mother, father, son, daughter, brother or sister.

“People like Mary McArdle may be victims of the conflict but Mary McArdle had a choice – she has had the opportunity of moving on, enjoying her life and career. Mary Travers had no choice.”

He continued:

“Sinn Fein takes the same hierarchical approach to the past – calling for truth and accountability from everyone but themselves. Sinn Fein aggressively says their demands come first – the needs of everyone else come last.

“With all the callousness they can muster, they are saying to all of us, that Sinn Fein’s approach to the past is no prosecution, no truth and that the needs of one of their elites, is greater than the needs of the many. This is the opposite of a comprehensive and ethical approach to the past, the need for which has been brought again into sharp focus as a result of this Bill.”

One practical effect will be that Paul Kavanagh, an adviser to Martin McGuinness, is now set to lose his job having previously served 14 years for killing three people in an IRA bombing campaign in England in 1981.

Commenting on the legislation, Ann Travers expressed her satisfaction, explaining:

“I am so pleased that I have done everything I have done. I loved my sister Mary who was beautiful, gifted, talented – [she] didn’t deserve to die the way that she did, but certainly didn’t deserve to have her memory stamped on.”

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