There is no doubt that it was galling and painful to Ann Travers to see conferred on a woman who had a part in her sister’s 1984 murder the political legitimacy brought by appointment as ministerial adviser. Her response to Sinn Féin’s nomination of Mary McArdle was completely understandable and rational in seeking, successfully, a ban on such appointments. Whether the Northern Ireland Assembly should have passed the Special Advisers Bill is another matter.
There was undoubtedly concern for the sensitivities of victims underlying the moving of the Bill by Traditional Unionist Voice ’s Jim Allister, and among the 56 MLAs who backed it. But no-one can be under any illusion that old-fashioned political point-scoring against Sinn Féin was involved. An opportunity not to be missed to remind voters of the party’s paramilitary connections – as if anyone needed reminding – and a chance to embarrass the SDLP. Sinn Féin has redeployed Ms McArdle, but it is set to lose an adviser to Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Paul Kavanagh who served 10 years for killings in England during a 1981 IRA bombing campaign.
The party has an argument in saying the Bill violates the spirit of the Belfast Agreement and the subsequent amnesty, probably its most noxious dimension to victim groups, but a necessary recognition that former paramilitaries may play a positive part in the new politics. It’s ironic and somewhat inconsistent that whereas they may run and be elected, indeed serve as ministers, that they may not become advisers. The row was a no-win situation for the SDLP whose refusal to sign a “petition of concern” – a mechanism that allows the blocking of measures without genuine cross-community support – has seen the legislation passed. The party will suffer among nationalists but, at a price, has deflected suggestions that it lacks empathy for victims or is willing to do favours for terrorists. The episode does not, however, reflect well on the Assembly.