The SDLP is preparing to support new laws being proposed by TUV leader Jim Allister which would ban an adviser to Martin McGuinness from Stormont.
The TUV leader’s Private Member’s Bill would bar anyone who has served more than five years in jail from holding office as a Special Adviser (Spad) to a minister.
The proposed legislation would remove Paul Kavanagh, Spad of Deputy First Minister Mr McGuinness, from office and bar most other Troubles-era offenders.
SDLP support means that Mr Allister’s Bill would be guaranteed passage through the Assembly and become law.
“We have told Jim Allister that we could well vote for this,” said Alban Maginness, the SDLP’s Justice Spokesman.
“We haven’t seen the final shape of the legislation — there is some additional information that Jim will be representing to all parties — but I can say that we are very sympathetic to the Bill.”
Mr Maginness, a barrister, believes the law is necessary because new regulations introduced by Finance Minister Sammy Wilson requiring security vetting of Spads will prove unenforceable.
“Unless they were agreed by the Executive, which would require Sinn Fein support, I can’t see these regulations being binding,” he said.
Mr Wilson is currently refusing to pay wages for Jarlath Kearney, the only Spad to be appointed since his regulations were published last year.
A Sinn Fein spokesman dismissed the DUP minister’s rules. He said: “Jarlath is getting paid through the party at present. As far as we are concerned we are on solid enough ground and Finance will have to pay out eventually.”
Sinn Fein MLAs and Spads pay wages into a central fund and then receive allowances from the party.
On Monday night Mr Allister said the doubt over Mr Wilson’s rules “confirms the necessity for the Private Member’s Bill which I am bringing forward to ban anyone with a serious criminal conviction”.
He added: “The drafting of the Bill is at an advanced stage and I hope to introduce it on the floor of the Assembly in early June.”
It was thought his Bill would fail because Sinn Fein would oppose it under cross-community safeguards in the Northern Ireland Act. Sinn Fein has 29 MLAs but needs 30 to raise a petition of concern to block discussion of the Bill.
It would be a major surprise if any unionist party or Alliance sided with Sinn Fein to block discussion.
Steven Agnew, of the Green Party, who generally backs prisoners' rights, said: “I would not support Sinn Fein in a petition of concern on this issue.”
While Mr Agnew would not block the discussion he could move an amendment or vote against the motion on the floor of the house. “I would have to hear the debate,” he said.
The only people likely to be affected are former IRA prisoners.
The only current Spad who would be debarred is Mr Kavanagh. He received a 12-year sentence for the 1981 Chelsea barracks bombing, which killed two people, and the murder of a bomb disposal expert in a restaurant on London’s Oxford Street.
In the past, Leo Green, who was convicted of murdering an RUC officer, and was an adviser to former minister Bairbre de Brun, would have been affected.
So would Mary McArdle, Caral Ni Chuilin’s former Spad who was convicted for her role in the murder of Mary Travers. She was shot dead in 1984 after attending Mass with her magistrate father Tom.
A campaign by Ms Travers’ family forced the issue into the limelight.
“Sinn Fein were legally entitled to appoint Mary McArdle but it was insensitive and they shouldn’t have done so,” said Mr Maginness.
Story so far
Finance Minister Sammy Wilson has refused to pay the salary of Jarlath Kearney, a Special Adviser (Spad) to Caral Ni Chuilin, the SF Culture Minister. Mr Kearney was not subjected to security vetting, in keeping with regulations published by Mr Wilson after protests about Mr Kearney’s predecessor, Mary McArdle, who has a murder conviction. Mr Kearney has no criminal record but Sinn Fein says that security vetting contravenes an agreement reached in 1998. They believe Mr Wilson’s rules don’t apply because they weren’t passed by the Executive, where Sinn Fein support is necessary.