Peter Robinson in bid to keep Stormont advisers row out of the courts
The First Minister has insisted that a row over the vetting of Stormont Special Advisers (SPADs) should be resolved in discussions with Sinn Fein — and not in the courts.
The comments from the First Minister will be viewed as putting some distance between his position and that of party colleague, Finance Minister Sammy Wilson.
Mr Wilson sparked a row with republicans by introducing guidelines that insist that all SPADs undergo security vetting.
The Finance Minister has refused to pay Jarleth Kearney, the latest special adviser to be appointed, because Sinn Fein has, on principle, refused to have him vetted. Mr Kearney replaced controversial Sinn Fein special adviser Mary McArdle, who was convicted of the murder of Mary Travers in 1984.
Mr Robinson’s intervention will add to the perception that Mr Wilson acted on his own initiative and that his party did not want a confrontation with Sinn Fein on the issue. Both Mr Robinson and Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Fein deputy First Minister, said they believed the issue should be resolved by negotiation.
Mr Robinson did not disown the Finance Minister, but when asked if he was “stepping away” from his guidelines he said: “Finance and Personnel can lay down the guidelines for those who are in the civil service. If anyone doesn’t like those guidelines they can take them to the Executive. Whether they are the precise guidelines that Sammy has suggested or they are amended in some way we need guidelines that will create confidence. We certainly wouldn’t be moving away from having some form of guideline.”
Legal sources say Mr Wilson’s regulations are not legally binding without Executive approval, something which would need Sinn Fein support.
Mr Robinson said: “I would be very disappointed if this became anything other than a political issue. I would be very disappointed if it became a matter for the courts. A decision has been taken [by Mr Wilson], we believe it has standing. If people want to make changes they must tell us what changes they would make.”
However, both he and Sinn Fein are keen to avoid a legal battle over the issue. Mr McGuinness agreed that the issue should be resolved through a deal.
Speaking separately, he said: “I believe this will be resolved at some stage in the not too distant future. I think that from our perspective in SF Sammy overstepped himself. It is not a decision that I think has any legal validity and I think that will be seen in due course.”
He added that Sinn Fein would pay Mr Kearney in the meantime.
Mr Robinson has been dealt a wild card by the decision of Jim Allister, the TUV leader, to bring forward legislation on the issue. The Bill, which is expected to be published next month, seeks to bar anybody who was sentenced to five years in jail from serving as a SPAD.
Mr Allister believes this would result in the dismissal of Paul Kavanagh, one of Mr McGuinness’s four SPADs. Mr Kavanagh received a 12-year sentence for the 1981 Chelsea barracks bombing, which killed two people, and the murder of a bomb disposal expert in London.
Mr Robinson questioned whether it could be retrospective, saying: “Jim Allister desiring it to be the case doesn’t change the fact that employment law wouldn’t allow you to change circumstances that already exist.”
However, he said that he would vote for Mr Allister’s Bill if guidelines were not agreed.
“I would only vote against the Bill if I was satisfied that there were in place agreed guidelines. It is in everybody’s interests for the parties to agree them” he said.
Last year there was furore over the appointment of Mary McArdle as special adviser to Sinn Fein Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin.
Ms McArdle was convicted of the 1984 murder of Mary Travers, a teacher shot dead as she left Mass with her magistrate father. The Travers family demanded Ms McArdle’s removal.
Last month Sinn Fein replaced her with Jarleth Kearney, a former journalist with no criminal record.
Under a deal reached in 1998 Ministerial Special Advisers at Stormont (SPADs) are appointed by ministers. SPADs are paid on civil service scales of up to £90,000 a year. In the civil service anyone with a serious criminal record would be debarred from office. Last October Sammy Wilson, the DUP Finance Minister, issued guidelines specifying that in future SPADs should also be vetted. This was rejected by Sinn Fein.
The reality of power is uneasy compromise
By Liam Clarke
Sinn Fein and the DUP just refuse to fall out at top level.
Other parties would be thrown into turmoil by an issue like the political vetting of SPADS, which cuts like a knife to the heart of republican and DUP sentiment.
It has the makings of a perfect storm, and it has not quite passed yet but the signs are it will.
For republicans IRA prisoners are not criminals; their sentences are a sign of their reliability. It is taken for granted that they should be re-integrated into society and given employment opportunities. When some MLAs and even ministers, have themselves served time it is hard for the party to refuse to employ ex-prisoners.
For the DUP these same people are terrorists who will bear the stigma of their crimes to the grave, even if they take a political road. There can be no meeting of minds on this.
Yet in practice both parties must work together. Jonathan Bell, the DUP Junior Minister, works effectively with Martina Anderson, his Sinn Fein opposite number, even though she served time for IRA bombing offences. Paul Kavanagh, Ms Anderson’s husband and a fellow IRA prisoner is one of Martin McGuinness’s SPADs. He works effectively with the DUP. Dr Alasdair McDonnell, the SDLP leader, compared the way the two parties interact to the machinations of Afghan warlords and he has a point. This is what happens after conflicts. Call it carve up, fudge or political maturity — the DUP and Sinn Fein point out, it is what people voted for in huge numbers at the last election.
Few voters want things meltdown at Stormont on such an issue and they don’t want their taxes spent on lengthy court cases either. That means politicians being prepared to swallow hard and reach a compromise.