The SDLP was on the verge of blocking the “SpAds Bill” because it was awful legislation. It was.
The Green Party opposed it because it didn’t do all the things it would have wanted concerning Special Adviser appointments. It doesn’t do all the things I would want either.
Sinn Fein opposed it because it randomly raised the issue of Special Advisers with convictions now, when others had previously served. This is also true.
What was missed in all of that (except the latter, probably) is that Northern Ireland is a post-conflict society and its legislature is a post-conflict legislature. It is not enough to judge a piece of legislation (or even, say, a motion on symbols) purely rationally. There is an emotional side – borne of centuries of bitter conflict and decades of killing and maiming – which cannot simply be discounted without consideration. There is in fact a nasty side to some “Progressives” in Northern Ireland, who believe we should simply draw a line and move on, as if essentially victims are holding us all back and should not be allowed to do so. This is totally wrong. If we are not diligent of the suffering of victims and survivors (in particular) and how their emotions play out even now, then that centuries-old bitterness and sense of injustice will merely fester and, in time, surely result in further violence – common sense, and a cursory glance at the history of Ulster, tells us that much.
That is why it was right to endorse the SpAds Bill. When Ann Travers saw someone directly implicated and convicted of the killing of her entirely innocent sister appointed to a highly paid, potentially powerful government office paid for by the taxpayer – with neither election nor competition – she felt a burning sense of injustice. How could she not?
Ann made it clear that she did not find the appointment acceptable, at which time a simple response from Sinn Fein accepting that the appointment was insensitive and providing assurances that if victims raised such problems in future appropriate action would be taken (implicitly including removal of murderers as Special Advisers where requested) would have sufficed. Through its failure to do that, Sinn Fein demonstrated that it was not interested in “equality” at all; rather, it was giving primacy to the interests of former IRA activists over those of the rest of society (“Republican” or otherwise), and most notably over those of their innocent victims.
That failure has to be addressed on an ongoing basis, not just through this one piece of (actually pretty clumsy) legislation. Murderers were indeed let out of prison under the 1998 Agreement, and people can probably live with that – but to be clear, they have not been justified, they have not been excused, and most of all by the victims and survivors they have not been forgotten.
The SpAds Bill is but a staging post to establishing a more important and fundamental point: for as long as Ann Travers has to live with the consequences of Mary McArdle’s actions, frankly, so will Mary McArdle.