Victimhood in control at Stormont

A new law banning Northern Irish politicians from employing certain advisers exposes the tyranny of victim politics.

Kevin Rooney

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It was the last UK Labour government that brought special advisers to public attention, with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown arguing that ministers needed loyal advisers like Alastair Campbell and Charlie Whelan alongside politically neutral civil servants. Now, of course, ministers of all political hues employ these ‘SPADs’. But last night, an extraordinary new law was passed in the Northern Irish Assembly which will prevent certain kinds of people from serving as political advisers.

The law targets former members of paramilitary groups who have served prison sentences of over five years. The ban, which will be applied retrospectively, will primarily affect former IRA members, removing several current advisers from Stormont, home of the Northern Ireland Assembly. These include: Paul Kavanagh, special adviser to the deputy first minister Martin McGuinness, who received a 35-year prison sentence for his role in the 1980s IRA bombing campaign in London; and Mary McCardle, special adviser to culture minister Carál Ní Chuilín, who served 14 years in prison after a botched IRA operation in 1984 during which the daughter of a prominent judge was accidentally killed while her father was wounded.

There are many reasons why this new law is a very bad idea. Firstly, it is punitive. These individuals have already served many years in prison for their part in the conflict in Ireland, but they are now to be punished again. Secondly, it discriminates against particular groups. Special advisers who were involved in killings in the name of the British government during the conflict will not be affected, as charges were rarely if ever brought against British soldiers or police officers. Thirdly, it is absurd. Why can prominent former IRA members, like Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly, hold office but not their advisers? Fourthly, it is anti-democratic. While special advisers are not elected, the MPs they work for are, and this new law excludes one class of elected politicians from choosing who they can and cannot employ.

But the main reason I object to the new law is because it institutionalises the culture of victimhood that now dominates Northern Irish politics.

The Northern Irish peace process was built on phrases like ‘parity of esteem’ and ‘respect for all traditions’. Many of the architects of the peace process pointed to the suffering on all sides of the political divide and called for a healing of all wounds. So you would expect considerable opposition to the punitive and intolerant nature of the law by those who back the peace process. Not so. The bill, spearheaded by Jim Allister, leader of Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), won instant backing from all the Unionist parties and, after being initially opposed by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), is now backed by that party, too. While Sinn Fein opposes the bill, its opposition has been surprisingly muted given that the law is so clearly targeted at republicans in government.

Why has there been so little anger at a law so clearly in breach of the high-minded ideals articulated through the peace process? The answer lies with one woman and the politics of victimhood that has now become the main form of the peace process. Ann Travers is the daughter of the judge that the IRA set out to kill in 1984 and the sister of Mary Travers, who died during the attack. Ably encouraged and supported by Unionist politicians and a fawning media, Travers has become the latest in a long line of victims’ representatives in Northern Ireland to dominate political debate and demand victims’ justice. It was when her sister’s killer was appointed as special adviser two years ago that she launched the campaign that culminated in the debate this week and the new law being passed.

The pre-eminence of the prevailing victim culture in Northern Ireland was demonstrated by the behaviour of the SDLP. It initially opposed the legislation as ‘flawed’, but after weeks of relentless media appearances by Travers condemning the SDLP for ignoring the ‘pain and suffering of the victims’, the SDLP did a dramatic U-turn, thus almost guaranteeing the bill an easy passage last night. That this U-turn was about meeting the needs of the ‘victims’ was clear, with SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell stating: ‘The needs of victims and survivors are not being met… we want to see clear mechanisms put in place that provide wide-ranging support for victims and survivors.’

For the Irish News, the SDLP U-turn arose from the need for politicians to put the victims first, which trumps any other concerns. An editorial stated that ‘in the face of an articulate, passionate and extremely persuasive campaign by Mary Travers’ sister Ann… a volte face became inevitable’.

This unpleasant and intolerant new law shows just how far we have moved on from the historic struggle between the contested goals of a united Ireland and a United Kingdom. A battle between ambitious aspirations and political principles has been reduced to a politics in which people demand new laws and concessions from their standpoint as victims – a status that no one dares to challenge. Sinn Fein is afraid to shout too loudly for fear of being seen to dismiss the suffering of a victim. In fact, it is also unable to challenge the prevailing culture of victimhood having itself used the victims on its own side to demand concessions in the peace process.

It was left to the special adviser Paul Kavanagh to point out that it was the forcible exclusion of Irish Catholics from certain jobs in the late 1960s that started the conflict in the first place, that banning political advisers will do nothing to help victims, and that he himself lost his younger brother to the Troubles. All those who suffered now need to move on, he concluded. All sensible points from an articulate political adviser. But being articulate and even working inside the political system in support of the peace process will not save Kavanagh from losing his job because of the role he played in a war against British rule in Ireland. For him and the other republican advisers who will soon be denied an official role in the politics of Northern Ireland, ‘victims’ justice’ must surely feel perilously close to victor’s justice.

Kevin Rooney is a teacher based in London.

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