Special Advisers Bill: Stormont Assembly expected to pass bill this evening
Law would bar those found guilty of serious offences taking up high-paid Spad posts
SDLP members have faced competing calls from victims of the Northern Ireland troubles over whether or not they should block a controversial Stormont proposal to ban the appointment of ex-prisoners as ministerial advisers.
The contentious nature of the Assembly debate on barring those found guilty of serious offences from the high-paid posts was laid bare as different groups of bereaved relatives gathered in Parliament Buildings to voice either strong support or fierce opposition to the bill.
The numerical make-up of the Assembly chamber has left the SDLP effectively holding the fate of the legislation in its hands.
Last week, the nationalist party seemingly backtracked on an earlier pledge to support a mechanism that would have stymied it.
Its decision not to join Sinn Fein in signing a so-called petition of concern, and instead abstain in the final vote, has paved the way for the bill to become law.
A petition would require the bill to gain the support of a majority of both nationalists and unionists inside the Assembly, rather than prevailing in a straight majority vote.
But with 30 signatures required to reach the threshold for a successful petition, Sinn Fein's 29 MLAs are unable to trigger the mechanism.
The private member's bill was tabled by Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister after former IRA prisoner Mary McArdle was appointed as adviser to Sinn Fein Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin.
Ms McArdle had been convicted for her role in the IRA murder of judge's daughter Mary Travers in Belfast in 1984.
Her appointment was met with anger by Miss Travers' sister Ann, who has subsequently campaigned vocally in support of Mr Allister's proposal.
But Sinn Fein is strongly opposed to the legislation - which would bar anyone sentenced to more than five years in prison from becoming a ministerial special adviser (Spad) - insisting that one of the fundamental tenets of the Good Friday peace agreement is an acknowledgement that ex-prisoners have a role to play in shaping the future of the region.
As the debate got under way in the Assembly chamber, victims spoke in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings urging the SDLP to either hold firm or perform a late u-turn.
Campaigners for families bereaved as a result of state actions said they felt let down by the SDLP.
Some of them challenged SDLP MLA for Foyle Colm Eastwood directly as he walked to the Assembly chamber.
Later, John Loughran, whose uncle was shot dead by the British Army in Belfast in 1973, said the bill was "divisive and flawed".
He added: "We believe, as families, that the legislation is flawed, we feel in some ways we have been misled by the SDLP and in many respects we also feel betrayed.
"What we now see is a piece of flawed legislation that is contrary to the needs of putting victims first."
But later Serena Hamilton, whose off-duty soldier father David Graham was shot dead by the IRA in Co Tyrone in 1977, expressed her support for the bill.
"They should not have high-powered jobs," she said of former paramilitary prisoners.
"Our loved ones are not here to have high-powered jobs - £80,000 to £90,000 a year they are getting paid for these jobs.
"My father is lying six foot under and has been for 36 years, and we have lost out in every aspect of life - they have got a high-powered job, they are being glorified and they are being rewarded for what they have done.
"That should never be the case, no matter what - whether it is a terrorist, paedophile, rapist, anything - if you commit a crime, you should serve the time."
The SDLP has insisted its decision not to sign the petition was made with the needs of victims in mind.
Opening the debate on his proposed legislative change, Mr Allister said the bill was to aimed at "righting the wrong" that was the appointment of Ms McArdle.
"Never again, never again will such re-traumatising of a victim's family be permitted," he said.
"This bill, first and foremost, is about righting that wrong and about saying that never again should it happen to anyone else."
But Sinn Fein's Daithi McKay branded the bill "discriminatory".
"The member (Mr Allister) has an unhealthy focus on Sinn Fein," he said.
"He has an unhealthy focus in trying to reintroduce conflict into our communities - and that needs to be opposed."
While Ms McArdle has since moved to another political role with Sinn Fein at Stormont, one of the advisers to Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is set to lose his job if the bill becomes law.
Paul Kavanagh served 14 years for killing three people in an IRA bombing campaign in England in 1981.
Mr McKay told SDLP members it was not too late to sign the petition.
"It is not too late to do the right thing," he said.
"To stop this discrimination and stop the undermining of the Good Friday Agreement."
SDLP members are due to state the party's rationale later in the debate. The vote is expected around 6pm.
After being on his feet for almost two hours in a marathon speech, Mr McKay drew allegations of "filibustering" from across the chamber.
Explaining the SDLP's stance, MLA Dominic Bradley said the rights of victims was the key factor in his party's decision.
He said "flaws" in the bill meant the only approach the party could take was to abstain.
"We think that it is flawed but in a situation where victims are being so sadly neglected for political reasons the lesser evil in this case is to abstain, and I believe that is an honorable position and indeed it is an ethical position," he said.
"I would like to think that this House could go further than the debate on this bill to deliver an equal, ethical plan for dealing with our past, and for the sake of victims and for the sake of the future I hope that we do that."
With the debate going on longer than anticipated, MLAs voted to extend the Assembly sitting to no later than 3am.
Belfast Telegraph Digital