Lobbying over Special Advisers bill sparks row

TUV leader Jim Allister MLA

TUV leader Jim Allister MLA

By Steven McCaffery

Legislation to ban former prisoners from becoming Stormont special advisers has hit controversy after the MLA behind the bill asked up to 200 people to lobby the committee currently scrutinising it.

A letter circulated by Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister listed key points that correspondents could make, advising them to “adapt these points as you please to avoid uniformity”.

The letter was sent to the Finance Committee in an apparent mistake, and while its chairman Daithí McKay expressed concerns, Mr Allister’s party denied it was seeking to unfairly influence the scrutiny of his bill.

The TUV sent the circular to a maximum 200 email addresses supplied by some of the 800 groups and individuals who responded to an earlier consultation on the legislation, which aims to prevent anyone sentenced to five years or more in jail from becoming a Special Adviser.

The bid to tighten the rules follows the outcry in 2011 when Sinn Féin Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin chose an adviser jailed over the murder of 22 year old teacher Mary Travers, seen as one of the most shocking killings of the Troubles.

A spokesman for the TUV rejected any criticism and said: “The average lay person is not accustomed to responding to calls for evidence and suggesting people make points in response to specific clauses is merely helping them frame their response in the fashion requested by statutory committees.”

The legislation passed the initial hurdles at Stormont, but is now to be studied by the Finance and Personnel Committee.

The TUV letter, which opens with “Dear friend”, added: “It is important that as many people as possible send in supportive comments to the committee.”

It directed readers to an email address and postal address for the committee for correspondence and continued: "You could include the following points:

“(i) Say you support Clause 2 because you believe that no one with a serious criminal conviction should be able to hold the position of Special Adviser due to the hurt caused to victims’ families.

“(ii) Point out that Spads hold a role at the top of government with the status, standing and pay of top civil servants. No such convicted person could hold such a post as a regular civil servant so why should they be able to be a Special Adviser;

“(iii) Say you support Clause 4 (the production of an annual report) because you believe the tax-paying public have a right to know how much of their money is going towards Special Advisers. Make the point that this already the case in the rest of the UK;

“(iv) Say you support the introduction of a Code of Conduct and Code for Appointments (Clauses 5 and 6) as this will bring greater regulation to the issue and…

“(v) Say you support Clause 7 which removes the right of the Presiding Officer (or Speaker) to appoint a Special Adviser. Make the point that the Speaker (a) has never exercised the right to appoint a Special Adviser and (b) the role of the Speaker is above party politics and so therefore he should not have the option to appoint a Special Adviser, a post which by its very nature is party political.”

The letter adds: “Please adapt these points as you please to avoid uniformity and feel free to add further points.”

The circular concludes: “If you could advise me of any response received from the committee I would appreciate it.”

It closes: “Thanking you, Jim Allister."

His party told The Detail: “TUV received a large number of responses to our consultation on Jim’s Private Members Bill.

“This email merely sought to inform people of the next stage of the process and encouraged them to respond to the call for evidence from the DFP committee and express the opinions which they had already voiced during Mr Allister’s own consultation process.

“The reality is that when it comes to consultations by government departments – never mind Stormont committees – the vast majority of people are unaware that it is even taking place. TUV makes no apology for informing people of their ability to inform this process.

“TUV will continue to encourage people to respond to the DFP Committee’s call for evidence and express their support for the innocent victims who were hurt by the appointment of a convicted murderer to the position of Special Adviser.”

The TUV circular was sent to the Finance committee, in what seemed to have been a mistake by the correspondent.

Committee staff are obliged to pass all such correspondence to members and it is understood the TUV circular was copied to each politician sitting on the committee.

Speaking as a Sinn Féin representative Daithí McKay, Chair of the Finance Committee, said he was concerned at the TUV letter, in which he said Mr Allister asked "people to respond to the Committees consultation on specific points”.

Mr McKay added: “He clearly asks them to make the same points using different wording.

“This is extremely concerning and some may indeed argue it seriously undermines the consultation process that has been carried out”.

Special Advisers, often referred to as `Sp-ads’, are appointed by political parties to offer political advice to their ministers.

The TUV legislation follows the fallout sparked by events in 1984 when an IRA gang opened fire on magistrate Tom Travers as he left Sunday Mass in Belfast with his family, killing his 22 year old daughter Mary.

In 2011 Sinn Féin ‘s team of special advisers at Stormont was found to include Mary McArdle, jailed for her part in the attack. This sparked outrage from the victim’s family.

Ms McArdle gave a press interview where she expressed regret over the murder, describing it as a tragic mistake.

But the murdered woman’s sister Ann was highly critical of the Sinn Féin appointment.

She said she felt physically sickened by the party’s decision and later supported Mr Allister’s tabling of the legislation.

Ms Traver’s subsequent lobbying for victims’ rights has been followed by her appointment to a committee selected to advise government on services provided to those bereaved and injured by the Troubles, the Victims’ Forum.

Attorney General John Larkin told the Assembly Finance committee last month that retrospective aspects of the Special Advisers bill may be open to legal challenge.