Monday, 3 June 2013

Special Advisers Bill

NB: This is a personal blog, and I speak about this bill as an individual. I'm not speaking for the Labour Party, nor am I speaking for the SDLP or NUS-USI. I'm speaking as myself, and will be held account as an individual. If you have any problems or concerns with what I have said, talk to me about them- not my political parties. These words do not reflect any political party nor political organisation. 

PDF of the final Bill:

Copy of the Belfast Agreement:

The Civil Service (Special Advisers) Bill is causing a lot of controversy. In the last fortnight we've seen a lot of immature, childish, and pretty libellous things said about parties and individuals on both sides of the debate. This is a debate that needs to be had with great sensitivity and respect. We're talking about the lives of innocent people who have died during a period of intense conflict- essentially, it was a war.

The Bill stipulates for the appointed "special adviser not to have serious criminal conviction", which means a conviction for which "a sentence of imprisonment of five years or more was imposed" or "a sentence of imprisonment for life was imposed" and applies "whether the person was convicted in Northern Ireland or elsewhere, was convicted before or after the coming into operation of this Act".

"The Department must issue a code governing the appointment of special advisers within 3 months of this section coming into operation" and "the appointment of special advisers must be subject to the same vetting procedures as the appointment of Senior Civil Servants to the Northern Ireland Civil Service". 

A number of amendments were proposed by Dominic Bradley & Alban Maginness- all of which were rejected by Jim Allister, the proposer of the bill. Unsurprisingly. 

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 stipulates that "the parties affirm their commitment to the mutual respect, the civil rights and the religious liberties of everyone in the community... the right to pursue democratically national and political aspirations, the right to seek constitutional change by peaceful and legitimate means... the right to equal opportunity in all social and economic activity... the right of women to full and equal political participation". 

"The achievement of a peaceful and just society would be the true memorial to the victims of violence". "An essential aspect of the reconciliation process is the promotion of a culture of tolerance at every level of society". 

If we had a Bill of Rights, like we're supposed to, this Bill wouldn't hold up. Criminal convictions do play a part in some jobs, such as teaching, medicine, etc. And *mostly*, I can see why (though the fact that criminal convictions play a part in whether or not you can work in a certain sector opens up another argument to the validity of the convictions and the processes surrounding them- which is another important argument to have, not not one I'm trying to have here). 

But the peace process (if you can call it that) wouldn't have happened if we didn't have political prisoners on side, if they were not sitting at the negotiating table and actively working to end their campaigns of armed resistance. It wouldn't have happened, period. There are many weaknesses to the Good Friday Agreement, but the fact that it actually happened remains a strength. 

To shut out those with criminal convictions from becoming special advisers is not fair. We elect them. We work alongside them. If we're going to open the special advisers can of worms, then why don't we focus on their huge salary? Why don't we focus on the fact it is more often than not 'jobs for the boys', rather than the appointment of an expert in the field? To me, that is more concerning. I'd have no problem with a special adviser having had a criminal conviction if they actually knew what they were talking about when they took up the post- many don't, and that's a huge problem that seems to be too often ignored. We seem intent to shut out those with criminal convictions but ignore the fact that so many of those employed (with and without criminal convictions) are in no way qualified for the job. That's the most important issue, to me.

If we had an adequate programme of reconciliation, victims would feel as though their losses have been acknowledged. Recognised and apologised for. And we haven't done that yet. The reason that emotions are running so high amidst this Bill is because we have no process of reconciliation, we have not acknowledged the hurts of the past and it doesn't look like the current Executive in Stormont are getting any further in any kind of strategy. This is a huge problem. And again, the Bill has overtaken this issue as seemingly a more important one. 

It's a plaster covering a wound that needs properly dressed and a much bigger bandage than the one currently being offered. It'll help for a bit, but in the end, will prove futile in both the reconciliation process and any kind of attempt to foster a tolerant and just society.

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