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Henry Hill Red, White and Blue

Henry Hill: Stormont bars convicted terrorists from special advisor positions

Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist, and author of the blog Dilettante. Follow Henry on Twitter. He is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.

Serious offenders barred from being Stormont special advisors

Northern Ireland continues to demonstrate how balancing the integration of convicted terrorists into democratic politics with respect for their victims is a very difficult, often downright miserable business.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has passed a law banning people convicted of serious crimes – marked by having served more than five years in prison – from serving as ministerial advisors in the province’s administration.

The bill was moved by Traditional Unionist Voice MLA Jim Allister after Sinn Fein started appointing people convicted for participation in IRA murders to the highly-paid positions. One advisor to Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is set to lose his job, having served 14 years for killing three people in a mainland bombing campaign in 1981.

The passage of the bill highlights a lot of the tensions that run through Northern Irish politics. For a start, critical to its success was the abstention of the nationalist SDLP. They were put under intense pressure to sign a “petition of concern”, which would have required the bill to have a majority of both unionist and nationalist MLAs in order to pass. Their refusal to do so, and abstention from the vote, gave the unionist parties a comfortable majority.

Perhaps significant was the fact that, with 29 MLAs, Sinn Fein was only one signature short of the 30 required to mount a successful petition unilaterally. With the DUP already having more than 30 MLAs on the unionist side of the chamber, if the SDLP see another fall in their share of the nationalist electorate at the next election we could see yet more power shifting to the DUP/SF duopoly in future.

Sinn Fein members accused the bill of marking a return to “unionist discrimination”. Whilst it isn’t explicitly anti-republican – it applies equally to all people with long prison sentences, including those convicted for loyalist terrorism – SF maintained that the bill was contrary to the peace process and that the priority for Northern Irish politics should be the continued integration of former paramilitaries into democratic politics. The SDLP also came under pressure from the families of victims of state action, placing victims on both sides of the debate.

It is a sad fact that peace in Northern Ireland has been won at a price – the release of many convicted terrorists and paramilitaries and their participation in normal politics. If this is at best extremely distasteful for many people not directly affected, it is hard to imagine how it must feel for somebody who lost a loved one to see their killer in a well-paid position of influence, reaping the benefits of peace.

Some measure of respect for the feelings of such victims is surely essential. On the other hand, the whole nature of the post-Troubles strategy has been to integrate former militants into the political process. No compromise is ever going to please everyone – unionists must make sure that, the law passed, it isn’t misappropriated or used triumphantly.

Britain’s knight in shining (purple) armour?

Nigel Farage’s visit to Scotland last month made the headlines, although not in a manner that reflected well on anybody concerned. I wrote at the time that the one satisfaction Farage’s hecklers really wanted – him joining with the Anglo-nat wing of UKIP and wishing Scotland good riddance – was one he was unlikely to give them.

And it seems I was right. UKIP’s leader has claimed that he’s the only political leader who can challenge Salmond, who he calls “a great campaigner and a big personality”. Farage claims that Salmond faces a “death of talent” in Scotland, and that none of the Scottish leaders of the pro-union parties have what it takes to go toe to toe with the First Minister.

Now, the First Minister being a class of politician above most of his domestic rivals is a widely held one, even amongst his opponents.  Whether or not Nigel Farage is really the man who can step up to that particular plate, however, remains to be seen – whatever UKIP’s current poll ratings, there isn’t as yet any evidence of a breakthrough north of the border. Perhaps Ruth Davidson’s preventing a debate on more devolution at the Scottish Conservative conference might offer UKIP an opportunity to cannibalise some small portion of the Tartan Tory vote, but that doesn’t look much like a path to real political significance.

SNP majority on the line

Still, the first opportunity UKIP has to prove itself is coming up with the Aberdeen Donside by-election – Farage was in fact in Edinburgh to launch the party’s campaign before he was so rudely interrupted by separatist protesters. Yet diverting as UKIP’s performance (and that of our own party) will be, the real drama is that the SNP’s surprise majority is at risk.

The Scottish Parliament’s electoral system was designed to prevent majorities altogether. It may have proved a bit of a double-edged sword for nationalism, leaving them with no excuse but to launch the battle for independence before they might have wanted to. Nonetheless, the SNP’s surprise majority was a major achievement.

Yet like all majorities, it has been chipped away. First the nationalists defied the convention by which the Presiding Officership (speakership) rotated between the parties and installed one of their own. Then they lost two backbenchers, who now sit as Independent Nationalists, over their u-turn on NATO membership, whilst another member has been suspended from the party pending an investigation into allegations of domestic abuse. Having won 69 seats out of 129 in 2011, their majority is down to one.

Despite a healthy majority in 2011, mid-term by-elections are never easy for a governing party and there have been other electoral signs of SNP slippage since 2011. Losing their majority won’t have a direct impact on the referendum (the unionists wouldn’t be stupid enough to give the separatists an out), but would give Better Together valuable momentum.

(An interesting side-line to the election is the electoral debut of the Scottish Democratic Alliance. There's no reason for you to have heard of them unless you ever frequented the comments section of the now-defunct Tory Hoose website, wherein nationalists would frequently claim that unionism was the bane of the Conservatives and that they (and by implication a large swath of centre-right Scots) would be "very interested" in the SDA post-independence. Let's see how they do.)

Speaking of Better Together…

Better Together London launch today

The BT London launch is this evening. It’s sadly now too late to apply, but I received an email a few days ago saying that they had been overwhelmed by the response and had to move to a larger venue, which is excellent news. I hope to see some of you there.

The McUnionist party's real name is... NI21?

Basil McCrea and John McCallister, who resigned from the UUP over a "unionist unity" arrangement with the DUP and then refused to join the NI Conservatives, are launching their new party on Thursday. At the launch they plan to unveil the new party's name and logo.

Yet according to the BBC, they have already registered the website ni21.org and tried to secure the corresponding Twitter account. It's too early to say whether this is the actual name or not, but personally I'm holding out hope for a more traditionally-formulated name on the day. Not least because one of the great advantages of the British party naming tradition is that you have to nail your colours to the mast somewhat. NI21, on the other hand, gives you no clue as to what the party stands for beyond the very broadest terms (it is pro-Northern Ireland and pro-the current century, at least). We'll find out on Thursday.


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