Special Adviser bill passes further consideration stage


A bill to block former prisoners with serious offences from taking up posts as special advisors at Stormont passed its further consideration stage, on 20 May 2013.

The Civil Service (Special Advisers Bill) proceeded to its final stage despite the SDLP's Dominic Bradley telling the Assembly that he would not support the bill if the amendments he had tabled were not passed.

The amendments concerned the retrospective nature of the bill and its implications for those currently filling these positions.

TUV leader Jim Allister brought the bill following the appointment of ex-prisoner Mary McArdle as special adviser to Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin.

Ms McArdle had been convicted for her part in the 1984 murder of judge's daughter Mary Travers - and the victim's sister, Ann, protested publicly about the appointment.

Ms McArdle subsequently took up a different post working for Sinn Fein.

Mr Allister's bill seeks to ban anyone who has been sentenced to more than five years in prison from taking up the posts in future.

Mr Bradley objected to the appeal mechanism envisaged in Mr Allister's bill saying it was "inherently unfair" as there was little prospect of success for the applicant.

He said: "I hope that my arguments and amendments prevail here. We stand with the victims and the process process in the law and I would point out that if we can't achieve that then the SDLP will oppose the bill and ensure that the wrong process will not pass."

This comment was probed further by the DUP's Jim Wells who said he was "disturbed by the comment" as it gave the indication that the SDLP was willing to use a petition of concern to "kill off this bill" at its final stage.

If a petition of concern is used at the bill's final stage it would push the bill to a cross-community vote. This measures requires 30 signatures to be valid.

"If that's what he's doing there's very little sense in us going any further debating this issue because the implication is that this bill will be killed stone dead by that measure," Mr Wells said.

Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott asked the SDLP to reconsider "throwing the baby out with the bath water" if their proposals were not accepted.

Daithi McKay of Sinn Fein said the debate was surrounded in confusion. He said his party had been consistent in stating that it would not support the bill or any amendments brought.

"This is a good example of how not to carry out legislation. The bill as it stands is an incompetent piece of legislation," he said.

His party colleague Mitchel McLaughlin said the bill encouraged discrimination and disadvantage for "up to 30,000 people who had gone through the prison system as a result of the conflict".

This was strongly opposed by the SDLP's Alex Attwood who said there was now a "prisoner elite".

"They think they have got a higher entitlement to any of the rest of the citizens in this part of the world," he added.

In his conclusion, Mr Allister said that the bill would apply equally to all those with a serious criminal convictions.

The bill passed following voting on 20 amendments. Mr Allister's amendments were all successful and the SDLP's fell.

The first stage of the debate can be viewed here.

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