Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Why the SDLP had reservations about the SPAD proposals

Alex Attwood
Alex Attwood

SDLP insiders accept the party has done a poor job of getting its case against Jim Allister's bill across to the public.

It had a cluster of serious objections to the Special Advisers (spads) Bill in a five-hour Assembly debate last week.

Its first amendment was focused on the retrospective nature of the legislation, an element which the SDLP wanted to remove.

Under the Bill, current holders of special adviser positions who have serious criminal convictions will be forced out regardless of how long they have been in the post or the circumstances under which they were appointed.

Part of the SDLP's argument was that the DUP, UUP and Alliance have for years worked with Sinn Fein-appointed spads who had criminal pasts and were therefore guilty of hypocrisy.

The counter-argument was, given changes made during committee, individuals were entitled to compensation and also have the right to plead their case to a panel.

Mr Allister described it as the "ultimate irony" that, had Sinn Fein not already moved Mary McArdle from her post – and the SDLP amendment was accepted – she would be allowed to remain in position.

Under the Bill individuals will have to demonstrate their contrition to an appointments panel, and could be questioned to what extent they helped the police in relation to the offences.

A further SDLP amendment sought to replace the test over whether all reasonable steps had been taken to assist or advance a police investigation with an affirmation of "commitment to non-violence" – a phrase which, the SDLP argued, has been central to the peace process and maintains the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.

"Far from being meaningless," Alex Attwood (left) told Mr Allister during the debate, the words "are part of the law of this land and part of the practice in this land".

This amendment was tied into another which sought to make it sufficient for people to acknowledge the gravity and consequences of their crime and express regret.

In the debate, the SDLP's Dominic Bradley said the interpretation of contrition was objective, but meant to say subjective.

On such slips of the tongue can public misunderstandings form.

But he also set out in yet another amendment the SDLP's view the "appeal mechanism is inherently unfair insofar as it does not give those who, potentially, would appeal a reasonable chance of success".

A fifth amendment sought the involvement in the appointments and appeals process of Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone.

But all of the amendments were defeated.

Mr Allister summed it up in the chamber thus: "The easier you make the appointment of a serious criminal, the more you diminish the rights of the victims."

While the Bill now looks likely to proceed, Sinn Fein MLA Daithi McKay has warned it may be in contravention of the European Convention of Human Rights, and could therefore open up a legal minefield.

However, Attorney General John Larkin has signalled that this is not the case.