How two oubursts in corridors of Stormont snowballed into a full-scale Assembly row
Published 16/11/2012 | 02:59
A DUP MLA branded a Sinn Fein special adviser a “monster” during an extraordinary row in a Stormont corridor.
Jim Wells is refusing to apologise for the remarks against Mary McArdle which occurred last summer during ongoing controversy over the convicted killer’s appointment to the special adviser role.
Ms McArdle was convicted of the 1984 IRA murder of Mary Travers, a 22-year-old teacher.
The DUP man also had a row with Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin on a staircase during which the Sinn Fein MLA claimed he pointed his finger in her face and warned her not to “bring that murderer to South Down”.
The bust-ups were investigated by the interim Assembly Commissioner for Standards Tom Frawley who upheld complaints by both Ms McArdle and Ms Ni Chuilin against Mr Wells.
The Belfast Telegraph has obtained a copy of Mr Frawley’s report which reveals:
- Ms Ni Chuilin claimed that Mr Wells spoke to her in an “angry, venomous and intimidating” manner on the west staircase at Stormont last June and told her that she and Ms McArdle would not be welcomed by the Ulster Scots community in South Down.
- Mr Wells told the commissioner he had most likely made the remark “You had better not bring her to South Down”.
- Just weeks later Ms McArdle claimed Mr Wells said “there’s the murderer herself” as he passed her in the Stormont corridor.
- Ms McArdle considered that the DUP man had “verbally assaulted her”.
- Mr Wells told the commissioner that Ms McArdle’s account was “broadly correct”. He said he did not call her a murderer, but used the phrase “monster adviser”.
The Committee on Standards and Privileges has now voted to act on Mr Frawley’s report.
A new vote will be taken on the issue in Stormont on Monday, and DUP sources say that the party will raise a petition of concern to protect Mr Wells, who is earmarked by the party as a minister.
Were he to lose the vote, Mr Wells would be suspended from Stormont for seven days.
But the petition of concern procedure means that the motion will fail because it will need a majority of both unionists and nationalists to pass.
“We have the support of the Ulster Unionists on this,” one of Mr Wells’ DUP colleagues said.
“She is a murderer, so Jim said nothing that could be defamatory,” a DUP source said.
The issue split the Committee for Standards and Privileges along largely sectarian lines. Five unionists voted against censuring Mr Wells and five nationalists voted the other way.
The issue was decided when Kieran McCarthy, Alliance deputy chair, voted with the nationalists to accept and act on Mr Frawley’s report. Mr Wells refused to resolve the matter by making a written apology to the two Sinn Fein women.
Monday’s motion seeks “to impose upon Mr Jim Wells MLA the sanction of exclusion from proceedings of the Assembly for a period of seven days beginning on the day after this resolution”.
Unionists feared losing it on a free vote because they have only a very narrow majority of 56 out of 108 MLAs.
The petition of concern guarantees they will win the impending vote, even with a few absentees or defections.
Revealed: the forensic detail of two forceful confrontations
Official report dissects incidents
By Liam Clarke
The historic walls of Stormont have witnessed more than their share of political turbulence and divisions over the years.
But while the majority of the name-calling takes place inside the main debating chamber, the astonishing exchanges last year between a DUP MLA and two senior members Sinn Fein took place in the corridors.
Jim Wells clashed with Caral ni Chuilin shortly after the Culture Minister appointed Mary McArdle as her special adviser.
There was controversy because the two women had been in prison together, where Ms McArdle was Ms Ni Chuilin’s OC (officer commanding) in the IRA wing.
While the future minister had been jailed for a failed bombing attempt on a police station, her future adviser was in for the murder of Mary Travers.
Ms Travers had been gunned down by an IRA gang as she left Mass with her father Tom, a magistrate presumed to be the main target, in south Belfast in 1984.
Ann Travers, Mary’s sister, and other members of the family were demanding her removal and the case was making headlines across the media.
This controversy was still raging when Mr Wells met Ms Ni Chuilin as the two of them left the Stormont chamber at midday on June 8, 2011.
Their accounts to Tom Frawley, the Assembly’s interim Commissioner for Standards, only differ in minor details.
Ms Ni Chuilin stated that Mr Wells confronted her on the staircase “in an aggressive and threatening manner”.
She said he stuck his finger close to her face and told her she would not be welcome in the Ulster Scots community. She added that, in a reference to Ms McArdle, he told her “you needn’t think you can bring that murderer to South Down” (his constituency).
Mr Wells maintains that he may have “wagged his finger” but didn’t point it in an aggressive way.
He did not believe his demeanour was intimidating, and that Ms Ni Chuilin had seemed calm at the time. Mr Frawley said he must accept that Ms Ni Chuilin found it threatening. DUP colleagues believe he was “passionate” rather than aggressive.
Mr Wells was in the same sort of mood when he met Ms McArdle in a ground floor corridor three weeks later on June 27. Ms McArdle claims that, in an exchange that lasted less than two minutes, he exclaimed “there’s the murderer herself”.
He allegedly told her that she had murdered a young woman at her place of worship and had better not come to South Down. Ms McArdle found this greeting “forceful, aggressive and intimidating” and felt she had been “verbally assaulted” in her workplace. Mr Wells told the Ombudsman that her account was “broadly correct”.
The report states “he disputed that he had called her a murderer, although he did say he mumbled a snide remark as he passed her.” He declined to say what this was. He later remembered calling her a “monster adviser” rather than a murderer, adding “you murdered Mary Travers coming out of her Catholic place of worship”.
He told Mr Frawley the remarks about not coming to South Down were not a threat but a warning that Ms McArdle’s presence could cause offence.
Members of staff were nearby at both encounters but none of them noticed anything. So, where there was a dispute, Mr Frawley accepted Mr Wells’ account.
After reading Mr Frawley’s report the Committee for Standards and Privileges found that Mr Wells’ conduct did not meet the standards set out in the MLA code of conduct on either occasion. In particular, he had not treated “the staff of other Members with courtesy, consideration and respect”.
The committee upheld both complaints.
This September, Mr Wells was asked to write a letter of apology to both women, something which he has refused to do. He has received the support of his party in this stance on the grounds that Ms McArdle is a convicted murderer.
We need to sort out our problems without resorting to tribalism
By Liam Clarke
Was Jim Wells intimidating and aggressive, as Caral Ni Chuilin and Mary McArdle maintain, or just a bit snide, as he puts it himself?
Opinion will be divided but it is depressing that this row has still the capacity, 16 months later, to divide the Assembly and its Standards |Committee along orange/green lines. You might have thought that by now we could consider these things objectively with no need for petitions of |concern and tribal rallying cries. The DUP has a point that seven days’ suspension is quite a heavy penalty for discourtesy outside the chamber. Even expenses fraud in Westminster only merited five days, though there were other penalties.
It is also true that Sinn Fein is thin-skinned; the talk of bad
behaviour in the workplace sounds almost tongue-in-cheek. Complaints of being called a murderer when you have a murder conviction do ring a bit hollow. None of us can escape our past, we may not like it being dragged up in judgmental way, but that is part of life.
On the other hand, the DUP is in Government with Sinn Fein and if that is to continue members should not delude themselves about who they are dealing with. We have had two bombers, Gerry Kelly and Martina Anderson, as junior ministers. Anyway, as Martin McGuinness once pointed out, not everyone got caught.
The DUP is in Government with people, some of whom, like Mr McGuinness himself, are former IRA activists with all that implies. Power-sharing won’t work if unionists suffer a hissy fit when they spot IRA veterans at Stormont.
Equally, republicans would do well to take things a little more in their stride. The issue of sensitivity to victims’ feelings is harder to pin down; it requires humanity and compassion rather than strict set of rules. Seeing the hurt of the Travers family, Sinn Fein was right to remove Mary McArdle from its Assembly staff and deploy her in another role. It would have been better if it had done so earlier.
If this thing is to work we need our politicians to stop making every issue a matter of principle and pushing so many things so near to meltdown.
Sadly, most observers expect the traditional tribal showdown on Monday.
Where was the respect for victims like Mary?
By Anne Travers
I think that the fuss over these remarks is completely ridiculous. Whatever was said in a corridor when things were a bit heated, there was a bigger picture of the appointment of Mary McArdle and how it affected me and my family.
It seems to me that it is okay to go and shoot someone coming home from Mass, but it is not okay to call somebody names out in a corridor.
I understand that there are protocols with everything, but I think it is just a lot of nonsense.
I heard that they felt they hadn’t been shown respect — what respect did Ms Ni Chuilin and Ms McArdle show either myself or other victims?
They didn’t think about how her (Mary McArdle’s) appointment would retraumatise myself or my family in the first place.
Mary McArdle said that she regrets what happened, but if she or Sinn Fein were truly remorseful they would have told us who else was involved.
Really, suspending someone for seven days for something that they have said, I find it all quite bizarre and bewildering.
My Mary is never going to come back again; we had our family life stolen from us because of what Ms McArdle did back in 1984. My main concern is that the victims will not be retraumatised.
The victims always seem to be forgotten about. However better Mary McArdle’s life is now, for what she did and whatever job she is entitled to have, I can tell you now that my life is not better off.
I wouldn’t like to think of anyone being too rude to anyone — I don’t think it is dignified or polite — but, really, there is a bigger picture here and I think it is very petty of them.
There is a time to deal with things and a time to walk on.
For me, fighting for victims is one thing that you don’t ignore.
Ann Travers’ sister Mary was shot dead and her magistrate father, Tom Travers, badly injured when they were ambushed by the IRA as they emerged from Mass in Belfast in 1984.