Special adviser bill passed after marathon Stormont debate

Allister and Travers Jim Allister and Ann Travers speak to the media after the Stormont vote

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The Northern Ireland Assembly has voted to bar anyone with a serious conviction from being a special political adviser (SPAD) at Stormont.

The Civil Service (special advisers) bill was passed after a marathon debate in the assembly on Monday night.

The vote was 56 in favour of the bill and 28 against.

It succeeded with the support of unionist and Alliance MLAs. Sinn Féin and the Greens voted against the bill, while the SDLP abstained.

'Legal challenge'

Start Quote

I'm so pleased, and everything I've done has been for the memory of my beautiful sister Mary.”

End Quote Ann Travers Sister of IRA murder victim

The SDLP was unhappy with some aspects of the legislation, and last month, the party said it was considering supporting a petition of concern that would have blocked the bill. It later decided against that course of action.

Sinn Féin sources have told the BBC it is inevitable that someone will mount a legal challenge to what republicans view as a discriminatory law.

The party's North Antrim MLA, Daithí McKay, said he believed the retrospective nature of the bill - the fact that it would bar people with past convictions form holding a SPAD post - was in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights.

He said he believed the bill could be "effectively challenged" on that basis.

The bill was put forward by Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice party, after Sinn Féin appointed former IRA prisoner Mary McArdle as a special adviser.

Ms McArdle was convicted for her part in the murder of judge's daughter Mary Travers, whose sister, Ann, launched a campaign that inspired the bill.

Ms McArdle was later moved from her post as an adviser to Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín.

Mr Allister said after the vote: "She (Ann Travers) has done right and done well by her late sister and father, and we all owe her a great debt of gratitude."

Ms Travers said: "I'm so pleased, and everything I've done has been for the memory of my beautiful sister Mary."

"Hopefully, it will give victims that bit of hope that their voices will start to be heard now, and the we can all progress to a better, shared future," she added.

'Anti-peace process'

The SDLP said it would not block the bill after Ms Travers met the party leadership and asked them to reconsider their support for a petition of concern, which would have forced a cross-community vote on the issue.

However, Sinn Féin has accused the SDLP of abandoning the principles of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Mr McKay said: "The SDLP today were led away from the Good Friday Agreement and onto the ground of discrimination and inequality by rejectionist unionist Jim Allister.

"They have sold out the Good Friday 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 Alasdair McDonnell's pecking order of victims. Today his party refused to meet victims of state violence. That position says it all."

However, speaking on BBC Radio Ulster SDLP MLA Alban Maginness rejected that claim and said there was "no informal or formal application by any group to meet with us".

"Sinn Féin have been completely isolated in relation to this whole issue - they got it wrong, they didn't put victims at the centre," Mr Maginness added.

He said the SDLP's abstention during the vote was "an honourable position" because the bill in its present form was not adequate to deal with all the issues it raised.

Mr Maginness added that he believed the retrospective nature of the bill would leave it open to legal challenge.

Determined

Ulster Unionist Party leader, Mike Nesbitt MLA, said: "We welcome the passing of the SPAD bill. We look forward to the implementation of 'Ann's Law'.

"I pay tribute to the focus, determination and courage of Ann Travers in the face of despicable abuse from some sections of Irish republicanism.

"She was determined that the memory of her sister Mary and others would live on. She has ensured that the voices of innocent victims will not be silenced.

"I also congratulate Jim Allister on introducing this bill and members from other parties on coming together to ensure its final passage through the assembly."

Under the legislation, special advisers who have been sentenced to more than five years in prison will be granted an appeal process.

This process would give victims a say and would require the former prisoner to show contrition and assist police in solving their crime.

Between now and the bill receiving Royal Assent, the Advocate General will have to assess its legality on behalf of the Northern Ireland Office.

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