Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Legislation is a test of Northern Ireland's values and democracy

The Special Advisers Bill is accused of being 'anti-peace process'. Only if by peace we mean amnesia and by justice we mean amnesty, write Maire Braniff and Cillian McGrattan

Mary McArdle, a former special adviser, was jailed for her part in the murder of Mary Travers
Mary McArdle, a former special adviser, was jailed for her part in the murder of Mary Travers
Mary Travers
Mary Travers
Cillian McGrattan lectures in politics at Swansea University
Cillian McGrattan lectures in politics at Swansea University

As the eyes of the world start to shift towards Northern Ireland, with the imminent arrival of the G8 leaders, no doubt our local and national politicians will be dusting off their stock phrases, extolling the successful transition from conflict to peace.

But what, in concrete terms, have our local legislators actually achieved? What is their vision of peace?

A rather dispiriting answer might be that the Sinn Fein appointment of the ex-prisoner Mary McArdle as a ministerial special adviser has come to epitomise the Northern Irish experience of peace: the vast majority of people, who did not engage in violence, are now being asked to sacrifice ethical and democratic standards of responsibility and accountability in the name of progress.

The Special Advisers Bill, which the SDLP is currently refusing to support, represents, in our opinion, a positive step towards saying that certain acts were morally wrong and ending violence should not be rewarded. In effect, it lays down a legislative marker, stating that peace is a right – not a privilege.

The SDLP's concerns about the legality of the bill, in terms of it excluding segments of society, were addressed by legal experts at the committee stage and by the Attorney General John Larkin. The weight of opinion suggested that the bill was fine.

This should not be surprising. The practice of lustration (the exclusion from public office of those associated with former abuses) has been widespread across many divided, post-conflict and post-authoritarian countries.

The bill tackles the issue of political patronage and states that it is not ethical, or right, for politicians to appoint people who have served serious criminal offences (five years or more) to publicly funded posts (advisers' wages can be as high as £90,000).

Political advisers are neither elected, nor publicly accountable; their closeness to agenda-setting and legislation remains largely out of sight.

Although it directly affects only a handful of individuals, the bill represents a very real attempt to define a vision of peace and a vision of the future.

In effect, it represents a piece of positive discrimination: it states that victims' rights and needs should take precedence over those of their perpetrators.

This case demonstrates the potential for politicians and legislators to re-traumatise victims. If trauma involves an element of betrayal – a rupturing of safety and expectations – then the bill will work to protect society from future betrayals.

The proposed legislation provides a way of fencing-off one area where politicians have been tempted to play the ethnic card; instead of political appointments being rewards for good behaviour, the bill states that they must be made with fair consideration to victims' rights and needs.

The SDLP's raising the possibility of lodging a petition of concern is, in some ways, emblematic of the whole debate.

Within the devolved system of governance, petitions have been used largely as ethnic vetoes (they require cross-community support) to kill legislation. An alternative might be that the SDLP commits to its hope for a robust, comprehensive approach to the past by exploring public appointments in a thorough fashion.

This bill is not about individuals or about denying ex-prisoners the right to seek and gain employment; rather, it speaks to the responsibilities that legislators have to society.

Fifteen years on from the 1998 Agreement, our legislators remain focused on rehabilitation and amnesty rather than reparation and reconciliation.

Our legislators at the Assembly have a duty to end the tired and circular debates over conflicting rights and act responsibly toward us to deliver a peace that we have a right to enjoy.

First, the bill redresses an ongoing sidelining of victims within legislation. That sidelining also occurs within political debate and takes many forms; from the idea everyone was in some way responsible and, therefore, no-one is culpable to the idea that victims are themselves creating too much noise as to make clarity impossible.

Furthermore, slippery suggestions of amnesties and decoupling truth from reconciliation simply embed a culture of impunity, rather than accountability.

Secondly, the bill sends out a signal that reconciliation is not just about moving forward, but that it also has a historical dimension.

The bill has been dismissed as divisive and anti-peace process. We contend that is only true if we equate peace to amnesia and if we equate justice to amnesty.

Finally, the bill is saying that political murder was indefensible. That message is shared across many political parties.

People from diverse backgrounds, such as Austin Currie to John Alderdice and William Craig to John Hume, have all argued that violence was not worth a single life.

We believe that politicians should grasp the opportunity to say to future generations that violence is not reasonable, or an ethical option, and politics and democracy can be seen to work.

The immediacy of the bill is clear, but the legacy of these developments and decisions for the values and ethics we imprint on society and impart to our future generations are important.

The bill is a test, therefore, of Northern Irish governance, Northern Irish democracy and the kind of values that we, in Northern Ireland, are seen to cherish.

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