How the Civil Service (Special Advisers) Bill divides the interests of NI’s two Irish national parties

Northern-ireland-assemblyWhatever you think of it as a bill, the proposed new legislation could be the first blow struck successfully by an opposition voice in Stormont. Although that will depend on which way the SDLP votes. Sam McBride provides the key background to the bill:

The legislation introduced by TUV leader Jim Allister was drafted in response to the public outcry over the appointment of Mary McArdle as adviser to Sinn Fein culture minister Caral Ni Chuilin in 2011.

The debate on Tuesday afternoon/evening lasted five-hours and was nothing if not thoroughgoing. Many of amendments were proposed by Mr Allister himself.

Sinn Fein are far from happy since they are only party likely to be negatively affected by it, and so have a significant private interest in killing it. Their problem is that they are just one MLA short of launching a petition of concern, which would veto it.

Support of just one other MLA (but preferably one other party) would be enough to stop the legislation in its tracks. The party’s pitch was laid out in the debate by their North Antrim MLA, as McBride notes:

Sinn Fein’s Daithi McKay claimed the bill was part of a wider “persecution of ex-prisoners” which would “push us towards further conflict”. Finance Minister Sammy Wilson, speaking from the backbenches as a DUP MLA, said that Sinn Fein wanted to target those “not guilty of conflict-related offences”.

The critical amendment (voted on just before 10.30 in the evening) is number 32 (scroll to the near the bottom here):

In page 3, line 4, leave out subsection (2) and insert:

“(2) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1), the code must provide that persons proposed for appointment as special adviser —

(a) must be subject to the same vetting procedures as persons to be appointed as Senior Civil Servants to the Northern Ireland Civil Service,

(b) must not be subject to further vetting procedures if they have been subject to vetting procedures in accordance with section (Determination of eligibility of special advisers by Commissioners (Amendment 11)).”.— [Mr Allister.]

Question put, That amendment No 32 be made.

The Assembly divided:

Ayes 56; Noes 27.


Mr Agnew, Mr Allister, Mr Anderson, Mr Bell, Mr D Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Ms Brown, Mr Buchanan, Mr Byrne, Mr Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mrs Dobson, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Durkan, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Gardiner, Mr Girvan, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Hussey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr Kinahan, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr McClarty, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Mr McDevitt, Mr McGlone, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Mrs McKevitt, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Mr A Maginness, Mr Moutray, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mrs Overend, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr Rogers, Mr Ross, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Allister and Mr McNarry


Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Mr Brady, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Mr Hazzard, Mr G Kelly, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Ms McCorley, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr McKay, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr Mitchel McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr Maskey, Mr Molloy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr O’Dowd, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ruane, Mr Sheehan.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Boylan and Mr Sheehan.

Question accordingly agreed to.

The critical import here is that the Assembly have agreed to push the decision as to whether someone is fit to act as a Special Advisor now sits with the the Civil Service Commission, a commission who’s remit is beyond the manipulation or negotiating powers of any party.

General logic of the bill up to then (ie that it is not acceptable to have people with an ordinary criminal conviction to act as a SPAD) had been accepted by Sinn Fein.

The substantial dividing line between those SDLP MLAs who voted for Amendment 32, and the Sinn Fein Assembly party who voted against, is this determination that the process should be depoliticised by taking OFMdFM completely out of the picture:

When it was put to Mr Wilson by the SDLP’s Dominic Bradley that when something controversial enters OFMDFM “it rarely comes out the other door”, Mr Wilson agreed, saying: “The member makes a very good point. I will not deny it.”

That last was the subject of some interesting remarks by Dominic Bradley, SDLP MLA for Newry and Armagh that Sinn Fein were “acknowledging in their amendments the point made in Mr Allister’s Bill that someone with a serious criminal conviction could be unsuitable or ineligible for appointment as a special adviser”:

This is a major concession by Sinn Féin who maintained the opposite stance through the Committee stage of the Bill. During the course of this debate Sinn Féin offered no challenge to the TUV or any other Unionist party. It was left to the SDLP to fulfil that role. Both Sinn Féin contributions were weak and failed to defend their position. The SDLP stood by its amendments through the debate, stood up to, and faced down attacks from both Unionism and Sinn Féin.

That’s fighting talk. However there are two more hurdles for this bill. The number of amendment and the time taken up to debate suggests some serious determination to see it through. With a Machievellian hat on, there’s a number reasons why they might fight this one through to the bitter end:

  1.  The bill is a direct response to the appointment of Mary McArdle who was convicted for her part in the brutal murder of the young Catholic teacher Mary Travers after Mass. This is an issue that more or less precisely divides the broad interests of the two Irish national parties.
  2. The airing of any such public argument would give the party an opportunity both to reconnect with the distinct interests and values of its base (civil rights, respect for victims and civil order), whilst demonstrating it retains a capacity to effect substantive change.
  3. By participating in one of the first transparently robust process of lawmaking, the party can signal its willingness to embrace controversy and deliver tough and fair-minded law in the  interest of all the people of Northern Ireland, not just those who vote for them.

This  last is important not least because there is a slow but rising feeling that nothing is possible when the heads of unionism and nationalism are made jointly responsible for the administration of government in Northern Ireland.

And – which is the opposite of what the SNP are trying to achieve in Scotland – such a loss of confidence weakens rather than strengthens nationalist ambitions to succeed from the aegis of the United Kingdom.

Last word to Mr Allister and the last few lines of his summation on Tuesday night:

It is in the public interest that we put the appointment of people to such high positions in this land on a proper and equal footing for all so that the public looking in can see that there is a process that is proofed against the obscenity that we saw in the appointment of Ms McArdle. The Bill unashamedly wants to proof those appointments against that happening again.

It is necessary to do that in such a way to ensure that the Bill cannot be made a nonsense of and be undermined by people ticking a few boxes and saying, “I regret all killings” or “I am a victim of circumstance” to restore their position. That is not conscionable and is not in the public interest.

The Bill is in the public interest, and I recommend the amendments in my name to the House and trust that they will find favour with it.

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  • Banjaxed

    Irrespective of the rights or wrongs of appointing ex-(conflict-related) prisoners as SPADs, the SDLP are, imo, setting themselves up as a hostage to fortune in this rather sensitive issue in that they are siding with an MLA, Jim Allister, who would not, if he could get away with it, allow Sinn Fein over the door of Stormont in the first place – democratic mandate or not. After their unholy alliance with the forces of the right in the abortion debate, it’s really difficult to see how the SDLP can gain anything out of pushing this particular line.

    After all they were the ones to agree the release of prisoners in the first place. So, where are they coming from now? Are they saying, ‘That was all right for then but this is 2013. We’ve moved on since the GFA’. It strikes me as not only inconsistent but also as decidedly very odd and, potentially, politically very damaging.

  • 241934 john brennan

    The government made the rules and the government should stick to its own rules. Nobody with an ‘unspent criminal conviction’ gets clearance to work in a government office? Therfore, if a government minister wishes to employ a SPAD with a serious criminal conviction, then that SPAD should not be located within a government office – and then it would be up to the minister how, where and what information he/she could give the SPAD, without violating his/her own conditions of employment

  • Banjaxed

    The government made the rules and the government should stick to its own rules.

    Yeah, but the government changed the rules so they could push the Agreement through. There are convicted prisoners elected and sitting as legislators. Should there be a difference between them and an unelected SPAD?

    Nonetheless, why is the SDLP following a blue line in this matter after all these years?

  • Mick Fealty

    You are assuming that there is no cost to inaction Banjaxed.

    There’s currently no provision to deal with the situation that arose when Anne Travers went on RTE and gave powerful witness to her feelings about the appointment of her sister’s unrepentant murderer to public office.

    You are suggesting that an employee be treated the same as someone who gains public office by public election. Fine. That was the case ex ante. Until the McArdle case that is. Whom and where Ms McArdle was party to killing makes a BIG difference to SDLP voters, even if hard core SF voters don’t give a damn.

    Such a strong and clear decision would also give SDLP voters something important to think about when they next go into a polling station. Shifting just a few seats Stoopwards would make an important psychological difference in their power relationship with SF.

    OPPOSING this bill ONLY suits SF’s own narrow political interests. That’s one reason why the SDLP should relish the opportunity to have a public debate and make it clear what it is they are struggling for. That it resonates with the deeper values and history of their brand should also strengthen their hand.

    To top that it also happens to be ‘the right thing to do’. And since they can win the vote – and thereby demonstrate to their voters and former voters that they can enable positive change – they should.

    There’s an old saying that goes if you don’t use it, you lose it. The SDLP retain something the poor old UUP have lost: ie, the capacity stop their senior brothers and sisters on their own side’s benches from blocking anything and everything that does not suit their party agenda even when it is in the wider public interest.

    Not something that should be evoked whimsically. But there won’t be many moments when the interests of nationalists and unionists are so defensibly conjunct as they are in this Bill.

  • Banjaxed

    Your post raises the questions which I deliberately avoided asking above as in ‘Irrespective of the rights or wrongs of appointing ex-(conflict-related) prisoners as SPADs…’ etc. I’m not suggesting in any way whatever that the Travers’ killing was anything other than a vile murder and that it was extremely insensitive to appoint Ms McArdle to such a high profile position. However, it also cannot be ignored that the pressure from Anne Travers, the media and assorted sources effectively worked and, in the end, McArdle lost her job.

    My only point concerned the perception given off by the SDLP in this and also the abortion matter by getting into bed with those who normally are the total antithesis of the social democratic values to which they claim to uphold. Fine, the same accusation can be made of the the two top players but they hold power. SDLP do not and would appear to on a downward spiral. So, to what end are they pursuing this line of attack?

    Even if it is, as you say, ‘the right thing to do’, the last time they did that – the GFA, for example – they lost everything. It is my suspicion that they could very well be jeopardising transfers if they continue to side with unionism and especially, as in the case of Jim Allister, the neanderthal wing. It might be appreciated in the more ‘mixed’ constituencies but it could well work against them in the more ‘mono-cultural’ ones, eg, West Belfast, where there’s an elected Minister on a low vote.

  • Mick Fealty

    You’ve been commenting on Slugger a long time BJ. I’ve never thought you were a double talker for one moment.

    And maybe you are right. There has to be risks to it, not least when you barely have the ear of the media.

    I didn’t like the SDLP position on the nationalisation of abortion whilst I thought that SF did, eventually, do the right thing.

    Doing the right thing is a vastly undersold commodity in politics…

  • son of sam

    Banjaxed seems concerned about the”S D L P getting into bed with those who are the total antithesis of the social democratic values they claim to uphold”.Perhaps he could outline what shared values Sinn Fein had when they climbed into bed with the D U P.Do I detect an implied threat to Alex Attwood in his last sentence ?

  • Mick Fealty

    Observation, yes. Threat, come on?

  • son of sam

    Point taken.Of course precision in language on Slugger is everything!

  • Gopher

    If politics ends up that the fate of an MLA in 2015 is decided on the McArdle question then we should all give up. Dont like Allister very much but in the absence of parties growing a set and going into opposition I thank god he is there.

  • Zig70

    I’m not sure many would be SDLP voters have any time for Jim Allister and would suspect his motives are to stick the boot into SF rather than doing the right thing. To me the SDLP are making the same mistake as post GFA when they looked to be naive. If they had come up with the bill themselves, it might have brought the kudos it is given here. I hold the view that your conviction is spent after serving your sentence otherwise there is no incentive to reform. Also victims should not be treated differently just because they are eloquent.

  • Mick Fealty

    Yep, except post Tuesday’s debate, no party holds such a pristine position as yours…

    SF now accepts that past convictions might debar someone (discrimination one might say), it’s simply they wanted any appeal to be routed through OFMdFM where no decision would likely be forthcoming.

    All that’s different in the current shape of the bill is that appeals be routed through the Civil Service Commission on the grounds it is independent and can be expected to decide in a timely manner whether that person is likely to re-offend whilst holding public office.

    I cannot see much of an argument against that tbh, whether big bad Jim wrote the law, or not…

    PS, it is clear from the amendments above that all that’s being asked for is that SPADs be screened to the same degree as Civil Servants, no more or no less.

  • Banjaxed

    All that’s being proposed here is that any appeal should be routed through the Civil Service Commission on the grounds it is independent and can be expected to decide in a timely manner whether that person is likely to re-offend whilst holding public office.

    Fair point, Mick. Couldn’t agree more,
    ‘Civil Service Commission’ and ‘independent’??

    Come on, Mick!
    LCJ Widgery on Derry, Lord Justice Hutton on Kelly/Iraq?? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? And who appoints them – the guards/judges?

    To paraphrase Mrs Beeton, ‘First catch your judge’.
    And in whose power is that? A non-biased government, perhaps?

  • There is a huge difference between an MLA elected by the voters to represent them and a Party Timeserver, who, no matter how smart, being appointed to a very highly paid position which is not open to competition by the general population. SF, somewhat unusually for them, made an error of the first degree or else were deliberately trying their best to be divisive. The Lady in question could probably been a very effective backroom worker at the usual, if believable average worker’s wage.

  • Mick Fealty


    I could list much more contemporary examples. But these things are relative. Is any one arguing against the vetting procedure as it currently stands? Nope. The weakness here is not on the Aye side.

    What the SDLP cannot do is vote in favour and try to pretend they haven’t. Think about how this segments their nationalist akaudience.

    It IS about reguarising the status of Spads, and putting an end to the taunting of victims. They must focus unremittingly on what’s actually being done not what their opponents say is being done. As for working with Jim Allister? Needs must when the devil drives (and I DON’T mean you Mr Allister)?

    I don’t imagine it will feature in the next election one way or the other. Nor will it is of itself win them seats, my point was more that it would give its activists a reason to push for seat gains, whether they choose to push for that with voters or not is another matter.

    But if building a decent respect within a new Ireland its about time we had some clear indication of what that means in the ‘here and now’

  • son of sam

    Can anyone list the names of the current Civil Service Commissioners as Banjaxed seems to be under the impression that they are all Judges.Maybe it’s just paranoia on his part.

  • Banjaxed

    Look, Lads, I don’t wish to make political capital out of this but, after two of the, God Almighty!, most sensitive issues imaginable – that of the abortion question and the unresolved matter of relatives’ sorrow and desire for justice – I remain totally at sea in regard to the SDLP’s motives for their pursuit accompanied by their newest bestest friends on the right. Since my first post I have tried to avoid the rights and wrongs of SPAD appointments but, certainly, clarity would help as the current arrangements have proven to be both a legal and moral mess.

    Nonetheless, you have to ask, ‘Cui bono?’ In any normal political party, people sit down, chew the beef, throw it around the table and, before any brave new plan or objective is to be announced, they would/should have gone through all the possible ‘what-ifs’ for pluses and minuses – what do we gain, what do we lose.

    Therefore, to return to my original question, why the SPAD issue, why now and why choose the TUV as their spearchuckers? It may be the ‘right’ thing to do morally but they are conniving with those who do not merely want to re-write the GFA, they want to destroy it altogether and would use this matter to chip away at its foundations. But if they still wish to drive with the devil (Mick’s caveat applies here also!) I would recommend a couple of extra airbags.

  • Reader

    Banjaxed: …they are conniving with those who do not merely want to re-write the GFA, they want to destroy it altogether and would use this matter to chip away at its foundations.
    There is a common interest in not having rotten foundations. So the SDLP will patch the foundations up once Allister has chipped away the rot. From their own perspective, neither Allister nor the SDLP should need to add any further justification.
    It’s like saying the old Stormont Government shouldn’t ever accept the urgings of nationalist MPs. Because they were nationalists…
    Banjaxed: It may be the ‘right’ thing to do morally but…
    I think it would have been better to put a full stop after ‘morally’.

  • Mick Fealty

    I think you are over thinking this BJ. It’s a simple matter of what to do. You are worried about who they might be seen doing it with.

    Well, honestly that’s a fear of our generation, by which I’m not referring to our age but the fact that we grew up worrying about who we might be seen with by whom, for fear, in the most extreme cases that it might get you shot.

    My sense is that the next generation don’t care.

    Look at the proliferation of Rugby across Ulster schools? It won’t be too long before young Catholic players are being inducted into the senior game.

    This is a different landscape to the one being projected by the sullen disparity between the messages the FM and dFM are trying to push and those being actively received by the wider over supremely petty disputes over flags.

    But when all is said and done, this is only a moderate piece of legislation that seeks to do the right thing: i.e. put an end to one form of unnecessary taunting of victims. Who loses from that? And who wins? SDLP may be.

    But the truth is that it would in fact constitute a confidence building exercise that involved a sceptical oppositionalist like Allister can provide and have accepted a positive contribution to building cross community confidence in politics itself.

    That’s worth a dozen phony photo calls. In fact, as Newton Emerson has wisely written much of the rest is balls…

    The choice is be captured by a sectarian separatist past or invest in a future that the next generation are going to bloody share even if their pols are too scared or too tethered by their guilty pasts to follow.

  • 241934 john brennan

    An exemption for employment of ex terrorists places corruption at the heart of the Stormont recruitment process wiz:
    If an ordinary decent citizen , who has been convicted as teenager of being drunk and disorderly, applies for job in the public service, he has to declare that on the job application form. If he does he is unlikely to be invited for interview. If he does not the facts are likely to be discovered during the vetting process – with the long stop position that if the undisclosed conviction is revealed after employment it will result in instant dismissal.
    Yet openly convicted terrorists, guilty of premeditated murder, may be employed in a Stormont office and presumable have access to all kinds of sensitive ‘state’ information?

  • Comrade Stalin


    I’m not sure what makes you think that the SDLP or their target voters spend a lot of time wringing their hands over appointments such as this. The very notion that there could be no peace process and no solution without the presence of Sinn Féin at the heart of government is central to the Hume-Adams project which has been the SDLP’s platform since about 1992, which most of the rest of us have now accepted. I don’t think people are really going to make a distinction over whether someone is an elected official or a paid appointee of one.

    Recently the SDLP have been out front over the Newry and Mourne play park issue and various other matters such as complaining about the entirely lawful pursuit by the authorities of Gerry McGeough. The SDLP councillors in Dungannon voted for a “Free Gerry McGeough” motion in the very presence of the man he tried to murder and whose life continues to be under threat in respect of the matter.

    My guess is that a small handful of Stoops will sign SF’s petition of concern and the motion will fall. In the event that does not happen, we’ll be treated to the sight of a very angry and petulant bunch of Shinners pouring attacks on the SDLP for sucking up to the Prods, something we’ve not seen since Joe Hendron won the West Belfast Westminster seat in 1992 (which we were told at the time “damaged the peace process”).

    For Alister’s part, he can’t lose – the bill allows him to get on his soapbox about terrorists in government and so on. In the event that his bill eventually passes, though, I’ve no doubt SF will be straight down to the High Court to try to get it overturned.

  • Gopher

    CS I don’t have faith in human goodness but I have faith in the Realpolitik in Northern Ireland though often I have to work hard to maintain that faith.

    CS your talking about SDLP councillor’s, I’m not sure SDLP MLA’s who actually have to face the media will want to be put over a barrel on the McArdle question by Nolan or in a TV debate or in an interview when anything vaguely related occurs in the news. Too big a stick to give to beat yourself with. It’s SF’s mess.

  • Mick Fealty

    I’m with Gopher on this. The SDLP does have considerable crossover with SF in the electorate. But their base is different and thinks differently about a lot of things.

    SF, because they are good at the realpolitik thing will try to frame it just as you have. In fact they already are at the discrimination line already since Weds morning.

    But there’s two stages if this bill left to go. So there’s time for them to work on a strong position.

    SF could not have anticipated in advance the power of Anne Travers public witness.

    But the fact that she’s Catholic, nationalist and middle class makes it hard for the SDLP to acquiesce in the way they did in Dungannon over Gerry McGeough.

    That’s a strong motive not just to tough it out. It should matter too that they have the power to effect change (as opposed to no change) since SF are short by just one vote of killing this.

    Power matters. It matters most of all to voters who eventually will give up on political parties which show no appetite for using what little they have in this solid state system when the right occasion presents itself.

    A big fat public row might just be the thing to remind nationally minded folk that you don’t have to retrospectively endorse murder in order to call yourself a nationalist.

    From a political pov this gives them an opportunity to present the nationalist electorate with a choice between treating victims with decency or so much collateral damage.

    Providing the work is done on this bill to make it a sound piece of law, that’s how they need to present it when the time comes.

  • Comrade Stalin


    I understand the theory, the problem is that I’m struggling to see any evidence for the contention that nationalist voters are in any way likely to be swayed over this. It would be wrong to say that the SDLP do not care about victims; but when has concern for the plight of victims got to the point where it has influenced their political decisions ? Can’t think of any occasions myself.

    The central contention you seem to have here is that this case will have particular resonance because the victim was a middle class Catholic. If the SDLP chose to play to that idea, they would be admitting to a hierarchy of victims along sectarian lines; are they really going to concede in public that middle class Catholic victims are worth more than middle class Prods ? This undermines the whole narrative around the IRA’s “war” which we are told was never about religion.

    The part about this matter which is different is that we are past the point where the SDLP need to step in to provide cover to SF. If SF want this bill squashed the SDLP may try to extract something in exchange for support over the petition of concern. Or, SF may have consulted their lawyers and may calculate that the SDLP failing to stop the bill could benefit them in the long term especially if there is a chance that it is illegal.

  • Gopher

    Nobody believes for one second that Mc Ardle will count in 2015 one way or the other . In the West Belfast sheep dog trial the SDLP got 17 transfers, go figure. When it will count is when you are trying to a make a valid point about something and Nolan hits you with Anne Travers and if you want to dig yourself a deeper hole bring up Allister as the sponsor in reply you will give him the scaffold and rope. You will make Allister (the devil incarnate apparently) look like St Jim and I’m not sure your electorate will thank you.

    There is no danger of it being illegal, also SF would be laughed out of Stormont a government that has to go to court because it is out voted. If McArdle and SF want to hurt Anne Travers any more and have their dirty linen washed in public by playing out a spurious court case they would need to be clinically stupid because the point of reference will always be Anne Travers and the crime.

    Nope SF if they have sense will engage in “Constructive disengagement” on this one and even the SDLP who are stupid wont touch it with a barge pole

  • DC

    The appointment of SPADs seems to be a morality free zone, now if the public were to go along with this zone remaining like that what would be the chances of a morality free zone being applied to other things in life like drugs perhaps and prostitution, albeit not politically motivated but hey if morality free zones are being tolerated just because politicians have special mates in their lives, cut the public some slack as well, yeah???

  • Gopher

    Interestingly on that list supplied in the opening post of those who voted “Aye” I’m struggling to find an Alliance name on it. Did they abstain?

  • Comrade Stalin


    Looking at Hansard I can see Alliance MLAs voted on some of the amendments.

    I am sure SF have a party line prepared for such Nolan encounters. It will be the usual stuff about there being victims across the piece, everyone suffering, everyone having to make sacrifices, sure whatabout the Bloody Sunday soldiers who continue(d) to serve in the Army, etc etc etc.

    For example, several unionist politicians openly flaunt their time in the UDR. In other words they had training and authorization to shoot someone dead if the circumstances merited it. There are relatives of civilian victims shot by the UDR out there.

  • Comrade Stalin


    Looking at Hansard I can see Alliance MLAs voted on some of the amendments.

    Actually I’d say there is a chance, an outside one, that this might be illegal in terms of employment law. The courts can overturn legislation made by the Assembly. SF have the financial means to fund a challenge of this kind.

    I am sure SF have a party line prepared for such Nolan encounters and they’ll make sure all their reps learn it. It will be the usual stuff about there being victims across the piece, everyone suffering, everyone having to make sacrifices, sure whatabout the Bloody Sunday soldiers who continue(d) to serve in the Army, etc etc etc. They’ll probably point out that several unionist politicians openly flaunt their time in the UDR. In other words, several unionist politicians were trained to kill and were authorized to shoot someone dead if the circumstances merited it. There are relatives of civilian victims shot by the UDR out there.

  • DC

    Employment law, out of which open recruitment process did McArdle emerge?

  • Gopher

    So the Greens, all unionists and the SDLP vote on an amendment and Alliance cant? Allister I believe said he would “not die in a ditch” for his motion to get the SDLP onboard. How typically Alliance.

    I’m sorry CS given the case and the relationship to the thread of the rest is a bit weak to comment on.

  • son of sam

    Perhaps Comrade Stalin could enlarge on why he thinks Sinn Fein will rush to the High Court if the bill is passed.This after all is a bill drafted by a Q C. I am aware that in the South a bill can be referred to the Supreme Court to test whether it is constitutional or not.Could Lionel Hutz assist as to the grounds on which a bill passed in the Assembly can be challenged in the High Court.

  • Mick Fealty


    On what grounds?

  • Mick Fealty

    In lieu of an answer to that CS, let me say there is no doubt that is the sharper and more professional party machine. But even after ten years with a lead role in Government the party does not do ‘policy’. Being good at PR is not the same as winning an argument over policy.

    If you want to see a SF policy house self-combust in front of the cameras have another look at the Arlene v Alex prize fight: No doubt they will show up with the UDR line. Except that Mary McArdle was neither elected nor merely ‘associated’ with the IRA but was convicted of murdering someone.

    This measure is a means to address the public distress that appointment cause, rather than the promise to deal with it eventually. It’s fair from perfect, or comprehensive. But it is a political move in favour of victims.

    In theory, at least, this locks the door on former members of the Shankill Butchers as much as it will on some former members of the Provisional IRA. But in practice, we all know there is little or no chance of that happening.

    And this is policy. In terms of the BIll’s remit it merely taking SPADs in under the security terms of a machine that works perfectly well for civil servants. The argument then must fall back to drawing an equivalence between elected officials and those that they appoint as their special advisors.

    There is no direct equivalence, but the point of SpAds is that they ARE political. Here’s how the Constitution Unit at UL defines them in purely technical terms:

    …they are temporary civil servants, drawn from outside the traditional civil service structure, and subject to the patronage of ministers for whom they work. In layman terms, civil servants are appointed through open competition and promoted by merit. Special advisers, on the other hand, are appointed personally by ministers, to work for those ministers; when a minister leaves, the spad leaves with them. They may or may not have policy expertise.

    This is one reason why the idea of open competition (touted by some as a reason for bringing in the proposed legislation above) is nonsense. It is a personal appointment and personal factors will always be important. But nothing in this bill does anything to interfere with personal choice.

    What it does propose is that these ‘temporary civil servants’ are vetted in the same way as permanent civil servants.

    Why do Minister’s need them? The CU offers a few suggestions:

    1. Ministers are overloaded. They just have too much to do—so spads help ministers to determine their priorities.

    2. Being (ostensibly) neutral, civil servants cannot offer ‘political’ advice; spads, often being appointed for their political qualities, can.

    3. Ministers want to increase the ‘responsiveness’ of the civil service, which is seen as passive and obstructive; spads can drive the machine because they exist outside the civil service.

    There may be a fourth reason: coalition government. Coalition government may require greater negotiation between parties; spads may provide that liaison function.

    In fact there is an argument made by some that we should have the US or French system here whereby the senior executive in the civil service is made political and re-appointed when the new administration comes in. The SpAd is a sticking plaster on the problem that expresses, civil servant inertia.

    Back to Machiavelli. The broad sweep of Nationalist opinion has no reason to want to see what happened to the Travers family happen to someone else. And I mean the taunting ‘in the here and now’, not the original tragedies of the 1970s or 80s or 90s.

    If there is no possibility – within the so-called peace process – of finding social solidarity over doing such a modestly decent thing, we really are snookered.

  • Comrade Stalin


    It sounds like you did not read the debate in Hansard. I haven’t read it either, but I skimmed through it – it is mostly extremely technical wording-related stuff and relatively little substance. That suggests there are specific technical reasons connected with the language in the amendments that contributed to the decision on whether to vote on a given amendment or not. It would be better to get to grips with the detail before commenting on whether or not Alliance or other MLAs have shown poor judgment or not, surely ?

    DC, it’s a fair point. A lawyer would be needed to give a real answer to the likelihood of this legislation being struck down. It seems unlikely as the Speaker’s legal team would have ruled the legislation out of competence if it was. But SF may yet find an angle.

    The employment law here seems a bit fuzzy. The first section of the new bill seeks to define what a Special Adviser is, which suggests there are no existing legal definitions of this. There therefore must be existing common law which permits minister to appoint advisers without recourse to the usual regulations surrounding employment, as I see nothing in the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) 1998 – the current statute from what I can tell – that specifically permits the appointment of government advisers.

    Mick, that deserves a more considered reply, let me come back to this. On just one point though, regarding Alex Maskey’s meltdown – I think the story there is a lot more to do with the internal way SF is run. The whole “let’s have a referendum that we can’t possibly win” idea sounds like a fairly classic Gerry Adams headline-grabbing stunt designed to distract people from the malaise at Stormont and from his own relatively weak position in the Dáil. They rushed it out without stopping to decide what the line will be. The complete silence from McGuinness over the whole referendum idea is particularly telling. But I don’t think this will apply to a real issue such as this SPAD bill, I think they’ll get themselves organized to deal with it.

  • DC

    It isn’t employment Comrade, it is an attempt to fluoridate the SPAD appointment process to prevent moral rot of the NICS via proxy.

    I guess ‘Comrade Stalin’ it is about ensuring as far as is possible that senior civil servants do not end up taking their orders from Viktor Abakumov types.

  • Gopher

    CS it sounds to me like Alliance (and I was a voter) are bigoted against anyone else going for the middle ground. If the TUV, DUP, UUP, SDLP, IU, and even the Greens can see the significance in unity on this why are Alliance digging around on a lame technical issue excuse diluting this central message. Like I said Allister love him or hate him understood this significance and Alliance cant. To spell it out again the central message here is unity of purpose against this nonsense happening again. Mc Ardle was embarrassed out of the job not legislate out. If our institutions need every exploit covered to maintain decency then we are well and truly f*****.

  • Comrade Stalin

    DC, you are clearly off into fantasy world. Civil servants accept instructions from Ministers only, and they have the means to question such instructions by requiring a formal ministerial direction. Quite how you think you can squeeze in an NKVD mass-murderer in those circumstances is beyond me.

    Gopher, it is clear to me that you are making sweeping complaints without reference to the facts. I spent a bit of time checking; there were in fact a total of 41 amendments. Some of them were not moved, presumably because during the debate it became clear they were not necessarily, or because other amendments made them obsolete.

    I can see a number of examples that specifically contradict your allegation of Alliance standing alone to foster disunity – for example Amendment 31 was opposed by the SDLP and Sinn Féin and supported by the other parties including Alliance. The SDLP also voted with Sinn Féin to block Amendment 11 – on this one Alliance abstained, probably because they were unhappy with the way the proposed OFMDFM SpAD vetting committee was going to be established. I don’t have time to make an exhaustive check but it looks like Alliance voted with majority of the house on almost all the amendments and I can only see 2 out of 41 cases where this was not done.

    I frankly have no idea what this “bigoted against anyone else going for the middle ground” thing you are on about is – exactly what aspect of the amendment votes are you suggesting supports this idea ?

  • Mick Fealty

    I’ve no sense that Alliance will do anything other than vote for the Bill… as I’ve said before, given its nature, I think there are more penalties for sacking it than backing it…

    But SF can only put heat on the SDLP over this, if they let them… I’d put them on a diet of watching The Week In Politics for the next fornight. No party ever willingly acquiesces in the criticisms of their opponent.

    They push their own narrative regardless, with as much confidence and conviction as they can muster.

  • DC

    I’ve no sense that Alliance will do anything other than vote for the Bill… as I’ve said before, given its nature, I think there are more penalties for sacking it than backing it…

    Do you really believe that – i wouldn’t be too surprised if in the wider nationalist family no one gave much consideration to it either way, i believe that it wouldn’t stimulate nationalists much in terms of affecting voting habits if the SDLP sided with SF on this one, u-turning.

    On the Unionist side, this stuff has been standard fare over the years but there is still enough fight there to register a protest and bill, however you have to wonder if small u unionists haven’t slipped into indifference, there’s only so much of this you can take over the years, and a lot of this kind of shit has passed under the bridge that you kind of get used to the smell of crap in the air.

    On a plus, at least SF did do the decent thing in the end and remove their Abakumov.

  • DC

    I’m thinking along the lines of being grateful that at least she didn’t make it to deputy first minister level or junior minister, be thankful for small mercies and all that jazz…

  • DC

    and as to why this regulation is needed, could you imagine if some unscrupulous Unionist MLA had employed Michael Stone as a special adviser to match this nonsense? At least that way he wouldn’t have had to contend with security on his way in to Stormont that day back in 2007.

  • Comrade Stalin

    DC, just because unionists keep their relationships with loyalist paramilitaries behind closed doors where SF prepare to do it in public, doesn’t make them morally superior except to the very small minded.

  • Mick Fealty

    Now we are slipping into the comfortably abstract lads… Truth is this is nothing but another piece of weak moral protest without the SDLP.

    I don’t know if Alliance will back it or not any more than I know if the SDLP will or not. If the SDLP do act then there’s not much in the of politics to incentivise All not to do likewise.

    It also would send a message out that not everything that emerges from unionism is a sectarian crockpot. This is key for one of two reasons why Id recommend backing this move.

    It helps build a sense that it IS possible to act “through the middle” even in a relatively modest way like this. The other reason is that it demonstrates volubly that SDLP can represent parts of the nationalist electorate that SF cannot allow itself to.

    As others have said, this issue should not swing votes in itself. It does have the capacity to help redefine lines of nationalist interest in the post Agreement era.