Assembly members in the North are today poised to vote through a controversial bill barring ex-prisoners guilty of serious offences from becoming special advisers to Stormont ministers.
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 Féin Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin three years ago.
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 Traver’s sister Ann, who has subsequently campaigned vocally in support of Mr Allister’s proposal.
But Sinn Féin 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.
The fate of the bill was in doubt until last week when the SDLP seemingly backtracked on an earlier pledge to support a mechanism that would have effectively blocked it.
The nationalist party’s decision not to join Sinn Féin in signing a so-called petition of concern has paved the way for the bill to become law.
A petition would have required 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 petition threshold, Sinn Féin's 29 MLAs will be unable to trigger the mechanism, barring a late and extremely unlikely change of heart from one of the Assembly’s other members.
With unionists members set to support the bill and the SDLP abstaining, its passage in a majority vote appears straightforward.
While Ms McArdle has since moved to another political role with Sinn Féin 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.
Ahead of the crucial Stormont vote, Mr Allister said:
“I trust that today will mark a significant victory for innocent victims and, for once, see something done to stem the tide which hitherto has flowed so strongly in favour of ”the prisoner elite“.
“Legislation which is set by a moral compass that respects victims is good law; it is the constant pandering to the ”pity me“ refrain of the criminal which is bad.
“I trust it will be possible to build on this small step to honour and respect the innocent victim in our society.”