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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