Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Jim Allister's Spadwork has put Stormont advisers in spotlight

Employment test: Mary McArdle’s conviction would have been revealed under vetting procedures proposed by Jim Allister
Employment test: Mary McArdle’s conviction would have been revealed under vetting procedures proposed by Jim Allister

Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I will move the earth," the ancient Greek engineer Archimedes once boasted.

Archimedes was selling block and tackle, but Jim Allister, the TUV leader, is a man who knows equally well how to use political leverage to move the big parties.

His Bill on Stormont special advisers (Spads) has already chipped into Sinn Fein ministerial silos and moved the party to submit to vetting procedures, which it had previously refused to countenance.

This puts Mr Allister in the fortunate position of being able to claim a partial victory – even if his private member's Bill eventually goes down in flames.

Already, two Sinn Fein special advisers have been submitted to vetting procedures put in place by Sammy Wilson, the finance minister, as a condition for paying them.

They are Aine McCabe, a recent appointment, and Jarlath Kearney, who works for Caral Ni Chuilin, the culture minister.

Both were checked for criminal convictions, found to have none and added to the Stormont payroll.

Last May, Mr Kearney was appointed to succeed Mary McArdle, a former IRA prisoner, who served her time alongside Ms Ni Chuilin. Ms McArdle was convicted for her part in the 1984 murder of Mary Travers.

The Travers family, particularly Mary's sister, Ann, reacted with fury at Ms McArdle's appointment. Sinn Fein initially stood its ground, as it was legally entitled to do.

Under a deal reached during the Good Friday Agreement negotiations in 1998, Spads are chosen by their ministers, without having to show qualifications, or pass security tests.

This led to allegations of cronyism. Spads are paid pensionable civil service wages of up to £90,000 a year. Yet any civil servant with a prison record would be debarred from office, although there is an appeal procedure.

When Sinn Fein eventually replaced Ms McArdle with Mr Kearney, a journalist, Mr Wilson refused to pay him until he was vetted under special guidelines.

Sinn Fein initially preferred to pay him out of party funds, rather than agree to vetting, which they held was contrary to the Good Friday Agreement.

The fact that they have now moved on the issue must be at least partly due to Mr Allister's private member's Bill. It passed the consideration stage after a complex late-night debate on Tuesday. It is somewhat tougher than Mr Wilson's guidelines, saying that no one can be employed as a Spad on whom "a sentence of imprisonment of five years, or more, was imposed".

This would have affected people already employed. It would have ruled out Paul Kavanagh, one of Martin McGuinness's special advisers, who has convictions for bombing London in the 1980s.

However, there must be doubts if the courts would apply legislation which wasn't in place when he was appointed.

The other difference is that Mr Wilson's guidelines could be changed by a future finance minister without new legislation.

All in all, Jim Allister, who is often written off as a one-man-band, has got a result and shown that opposition MLAs can have a role at Stormont.

You don't have to be in an Executive party to get things done.

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