Debate over Special Advisers Bill fuels row

March 25, 2013

The Assembly debate over the controversial Special Advisors Bill has sparked a heated row between the SDLP and Sinn Fein with local representatives from both parties entering into a war of words over the issue.

SDLP MLA for Newry and Armagh Dominic Bradley has accused Sinn Féin of conceding the debate on the Special Advisers Bill to the TUV by acknowledging in their amendments that someone with a serious criminal conviction could be unsuitable or ineligible for appointment as a special adviser.

Commenting on what he described as a “Sinn Féin U-turn” Mr Bradley said,

“This is a major concession by Sinn Féin, who maintained the opposite stance throughout the Committee stage of the Bill.  During the course of this debate, Sinn Féin offered no challenge to the TUV or any other Unionist party.  It was left to the SDLP to fulfil that role. Both Sinn Féin speakers were weak and failed to defend their position.  The SDLP stood by its amendments through the debate and stood up to and faced down attacks from both Unionism and Sinn Féin.”

He called for an explanation from Sinn Féin MLA Megan Fearon for her absence during the four hour debate even though she sits on the committee responsible for scrutinising the bill and had signed all of the Sinn Féin amendments.

“Ms Fearon must explain her absence to the ex-prisoners she purports to defend.  She made no contribution whatsoever to the debate and was not once in the Chamber” he said.

Mr Bradley also criticised the Minister of Finance and Personnel, for what he described as “washing his hands of his own policies.”

“Alliance meekly caved in, in response to taunting from Unionism and supported Mr Allister’s line – a complete about-face from their stance at the earlier stage of the Bill.

“It must never be forgotten that the issue which lies behind this whole debate relates to Sinn Féin’s appointment of Mary Mc Ardle, who was convicted of the murder of Mary Travers and the serious wounding of her father on their way home from Mass.  Ann Travers, Mary’s sister, successfully campaigned for Sinn Féin to reverse this decision.

“The SDLP amendments offered the strongest case for victims as well as being fair to potential appointees and existing incumbents.  I regret that the Assembly did not accept all of our amendments but we will continue to work to ensure that this Bill is fair to all.”

Meanwhile Sinn Fein MLA Megan Fearon was vociferous in her condemnation of SDLP actions during the process.  She maintains that the SDLP failure to block the Special Advisors Bill undermines equality and the Good Friday Agreement.

Ms Fearon expressed her “disappointment” saying,

“Since the Bill was introduced we have clearly stated that it is politically motivated and undermines the Good Friday Agreement and equality, as it serves only one purpose which is to discriminate against political ex-prisoners in employment.

“The SDLP claim they are a party of equality yet they supported this Bill.

“Senior members of the SDLP have said that they are not happy with the Bill. If those members are not happy they should block the Bill by signing a Petition of Concern, putting an end to this infringement of equality once and for all!”