Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Floundering SDLP bows to pressure

It is incredible that a political party which throughout the Troubles stood firm against the violence of the IRA should tie itself in knots over the Stormont bill seeking to prevent people with serious convictions being appointed as special advisers to Executive ministers.

Given its heritage the SDLP should have supported the Bill – perhaps with amendments – from the outset. Instead it seemed to be for it, then threatened to block the legislation, before yesterday finally deciding that it would probably abstain on the crucial vote. That would pave the way for the bill to progress towards law.

The party's position has hardly been convincing. Some might argue that it seemed to be more concerned about its political standing in the nationalist community and whether Sinn Fein would be able to make political capital out of the issue. Of course that is what will now happen as the SDLP will be seen to have bowed to pressure to prevent former prisoners getting highly paid posts at Stormont.

But this was as much a moral issue as a legislative one. Many people across the two communities here are appalled at the sight of former prisoners, guilty of atrocious crimes up to murder, being apparently rewarded for their republican endeavours. The peace process meant that republicans – or any other former paramilitaries – could come in from the cold politically and many former prisoners have become prominent politicians.

They stood before the court of public opinion in the polls and were elected and, rightly, were able to take their seats at Stormont. While many people may have been uncomfortable with that, it was a price they were prepared to pay to end the cycle of violence which had besmirched this province for too long at the cost of more than 3,000 lives.

However they felt that the appointment of special advisers with serious criminal convictions was a step too far. They felt, with some justification, that Sinn Fein in particular was ignoring totally the feeling of victims by rewarding people, who in some instances, were responsible for the deaths of some of those victims. The final straw was the appointment of Mary McArdle, convicted for her part in the killing of Mary Travers and the wounding of her magistrate father, Tom, as a special adviser to Arts and Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin.

Mary's sister Ann highlighted the hurt the appointment caused to her family and brought the issue to a head. It was her pleas which forced the SDLP to finally see some sense and announce that it would not block the new bill.

However the bill should not be seen as a first step in a campaign to stop former prisoners gaining employment.

They are as entitled as anyone else to the vast majority of jobs, but it is uncaring and wounding to appoint people guilty of serious terrorist offences to positions at the very heart of the political administration. Quite rightly that will no longer be allowed when the bill becomes law.

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