Does Northern Ireland need lustration?

SDLP assembly team
Image caption The SDLP said it would not block the bill on special advisers

I hadn't heard of the word "lustration" before today.

Then it came along twice in quick succession - first in an article by Maire Brannif and Cillian McGrattan in the Belfast Telegraph, then in a letter from Relatives For Justice.

For those who, like me, weren't in the know, lustration is the term given to the exclusion from civil service jobs of ex-communists and secret police agents in Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War.

The latest twists and turns by the SDLP on Jim Allister's Special Advisers Bill have sparked a debate on whether Northern Ireland should adopt a similar process of "lustration".

Is excluding former prisoners from jobs as ministerial advisers a breach of the Good Friday Agreement, which recognises "the importance of measures to facilitate the reintegration of prisoners into the community by providing support both prior to and after release, including assistance directed towards availing of employment opportunities, re-training and/or reskilling, and further education"?

Or does it show respect for victims of human rights abuses traumatised by watching perpetrators achieve prominent positions?

Have Sinn Fein only got themselves to blame by appointing someone associated with such a notorious case as the murder of Mary Travers to such a high profile job?

If the Special Advisers Bill becomes law, it could spell trouble for Paul Kavanagh - husband of MEP Martina Anderson and aide in the Deputy First Minister's Office.

As pointed out here in May last year, Kavanagh was convicted for his part in the murder of bomb disposal officer Ken Howorth as well as other IRA attacks such as the Chelsea barracks' nail bombing that claimed the lives of two civilians.

The retrospective clause in Jim Allister's bill looks like it would bar Kavanagh from his current role.

If the example of Mary McArdle is anything to go by, Sinn Fein might simply transfer Paul Kavanagh to another post within the party hierarchy, and shift someone else into Martin McGuinness's office.

After all, republicans pool their salaries, so does it matter which precise title they hold?

That said, Sinn Fein don't want to be dictated to on their appointments policy, and they will continue to accuse the SDLP and the bill's proponents of discriminating against ex-prisoners.

There are a number of inconsistencies - not least that whilst Mary McArdle and Paul Kavanagh might be the focus of attention, the junior minister in Martin McGuinness's office is Jennifer McCann.

Ms McCann was herself sentenced to 20 years in jail for the attempted murder of an RUC officer.

Jennifer McCann is the third ex-IRA prisoner in a row to hold the junior minister's job, which includes responsibility for dealing with victims' issues.

One argument made for differentiating between McCann and McArdle is that ministers are elected whereas aides are appointed.

However, the widespread use of co-options at Stormont makes the distinction less clear (for example the one time "most wanted" IRA member Ian Milne was recently co-opted as Mid Ulster MLA.

Moreover, Sinn Fein will argue that if they didn't have an electoral mandate to begin with then they wouldn't be in a position to appoint any special advisers.

So far as "lustration" is concerned, there are areas - such as joining the PSNI - for which no ex-prisoner need apply.

Extending this exclusion to special advisers in a private member's bill is - as the SDLP's Conall McDevitt put it - a "patchwork quilt" approach, which isn't a substitute for a more comprehensive approach to dealing with the past.

Not all victims agree, but for Mary Travers' sister Ann, given the failure to make any progress on the past, a "patchwork quilt" is better than no quilt at all.

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