Blog | Steven Agnew - Leader, Green Party N.Ireland

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Assembly Speech on Special Advisers Bill

Monday 3rd June 2013

At the outset, I would like to outline the fact that the Green Party has consistently stood opposed to any form of violence in this society to achieve political aims.  In that regard, we extend our sympathies to all victims of the violence that was all too commonplace in Northern Ireland in our past and that, unfortunately, continues in isolated instances even today.  It is in that context that I speak in this debate and outline the Green Party’s position on the Bill.

The Green Party sees the Bill as a missed opportunity.  Having been involved in the Second Stage debate, I find it interesting to hear parties’ positions and how those have changed throughout the stages of the Bill.  My party’s view has been consistent.  We have major concerns about how special advisers are appointed.  At Second Stage, I made the point that special advisers should be appointed on merit and that there should be greater scrutiny and transparency as regards how special advisers are appointed.

Interestingly, although there was some disagreement on whether those with serious criminal convictions should be appointed to special adviser positions, there was almost unanimity in opposition to the idea that special advisers should be properly interviewed and that the merit principle, which applies in other appointments to ensure fairness, should be applied.  That is something that I feel should happen given the importance of these positions, given the high level nature of the work, and given, as was said continually at Second Stage, that special advisers sit with the same privileges and many of the same responsibilities as senior civil servants, who we would never think of appointing without such proper scrutiny, openness and fairness.

There is a perception that special adviser posts are, if you will pardon the term, jobs for the boys.  That has been at the heart of some of what we have debated today and throughout the other stages of the Bill.  While the vetting procedures are one aspect of tackling that, for me, including the merit principle in the appointment of special advisers, would be the other key part.

I very much believe that that is an opportunity missed.  I welcome the elements of the Bill that bring the vetting procedures more into line with the appointment of senior civil servants.  That is the benchmark of normalising these positions.  However, to some extent, the Bill goes beyond those vetting procedures, and that concerns me.

There has been a lot of discussion in the debate about the definition of victims.  My personal view is that it should be a broad definition.  Many of us are indirect victims of our conflict, although I appreciate that there are those who have been impacted much more directly.  I also take the view that there should be a wide definition of perpetrators, which is why I made the point about jobs for the boys.  There have been many actors in the conflict in Northern Ireland.  Reference has been made to the IRA’s role.  Reference has been made to the role of the security forces.  There has been no reference to the role of all those, including people and parties in the Chamber, who continually promoted sectarianism, bigotry, division and hatred throughout our Troubles and then washed their hands of the atrocities that were committed and washed their hands when people took those words, that hatred, that bigotry and that sectarianism and used them as justification to commit acts of violence.  Those people then stepped back and said that they did not commit the violence.  However, we have to remember that many people gave power and weight to those who did commit violence by perpetrating sectarianism, bigotry and division in our society.  Whether it is Sinn Féin or any other party giving jobs for the boys, the girls or for the party faithful, we are right to question whether those appointments are based on merit or on a privilege that has been bestowed on the party faithful.

The Green Party is opposed to the Bill.  As I said previously, although we see elements of merit in it, it very much appears to my party and me that it is using our past to legislate for our future.  It takes us back to old arguments, and we have seen that today.  I cannot support the Bill for the key reason that it takes away the principle of rehabilitation.  Many have claimed to speak on behalf of victims today; I will not pretend to do that.  I do not believe that victims are a homogenous group or that victims speak with one voice.  There are many victims in our society with many opinions.  I speak only of my best interpretation of how to serve victims.  For me, the best way to do that is to reduce offending and reoffending and, ultimately, reduce the number of victims and prevent future victims.  How do we best do that?  I believe that rehabilitation has to be at the core of our justice system, and I see the Bill as seeking to impose an extra penalty on a certain category of ex-offender.  That does not serve our society well.  We have to ask whether ex-offenders who are released from prison, having committed whatever crime, are more or less likely to reoffend if they are in paid employment.  I do not think that seeking to limit or restrict employment for ex-offenders serves our society well because I believe that people who come out of prison and have been rehabilitated and reintegrated into society are more likely to make a positive contribution than if we simply seek to exclude, marginalise and continually punish them for the crime that they committed.

As a society, we have come to that conclusion with our employment law.  When a crime is of material relevance to the job that somebody with a conviction is applying for, it can be taken into consideration.  However, when that crime is not materially relevant, it is not because, as a society, we have come to the conclusion that we are better off if we reintegrate former prisoners into society than if we seek to marginalise them.  Through the Bill, we are trying to create a special category of employment and a special category of ex-offender outside that.  Mr McKay referenced my quote during Second Stage when I said that I see this as an attempt to put the shackles of the past on our feet as we journey towards the future.

I will come to the point about the petition of concern.  Mr McLaughlin referred to that.  Although the Green Party opposes the Bill, we are not signing the petition of concern.  I stand over that decision, and I will give my reasons for it.  As I said, I am not opposed to every element of the Bill.  At Second Stage, I said that I wanted to see special advisers appointed in ways that are more similar to arrangements for senior civil servants.  Aspects of the Bill put the code of conduct on a statutory footing and make the vetting procedures equal to those that apply to senior civil servants, and I support those elements.  I have chosen not to put a block on it, and I think, to some extent, that doing so would be a slap in the face to the victims who support the Bill.  I disagree with them, and I say that clearly, but to block it would be a slap in the face.  I will oppose it.  The democratic will of the House appears to be for the Bill to go through, and I will respect that democratic decision.

Sinn Féin has presented an argument almost akin to George W Bush’s argument that you are either with us or with the terrorists, although it is not quite the same, because Sinn Féin might not put it like that.  For Sinn Féin, it is all or nothing or black or white.  The argument is that, if I do not support Sinn Féin’s petition of concern, my opposition to the Bill is somehow disingenuous.  I will be interested to see whether Sinn Féin is consistent on that, because it has not been consistent on that position in the past.  It is not so long ago that the House passed the Criminal Justice Bill, which Sinn Féin and the SDLP opposed.  They made their arguments for doing so, and, at various stages, I raised concerns about that Bill.  Sinn Féin did not seek a petition of concern for that Bill; it certainly did not ask me.  Given that both it and the SDLP opposed it, they could have tabled a petition of concern.  To suggest that every time we disagree with a motion or a piece of legislation in the House we should seek a petition of concern is a disingenuous position.  This was an attempt by Sinn Féin to push my party and the SDLP into ensuring that it gets its way.  I will not be pushed in that manner. 

I can only speculate about why Sinn Féin did not support the SDLP amendments, which, in my opinion, would have made the Bill better.  There are two possibilities.  One is that, ultimately, it wanted a bad Bill, so that, when we got to this stage, it would have stronger leverage to seek a petition of concern.  Perhaps, as Mr Alban Maginness suggested, it wanted to appear as victims: victims of Jim Allister’s Bill; victims of the SDLP; and even victims of the Green Party. 

I do not like to speak about other parties in my speeches.  I try to avoid that and stick to my party’s position in promoting my party’s message rather than concerning myself with the views of other parties.  References were made to my party’s position, however, and I felt that I needed to defend it robustly.

In conclusion, I am opposed to the Bill, as I have been consistently from Second Stage.  While others’ positions changed, the Green Party’s position has remained consistent.  We do not believe that the Bill has been sufficiently amended to garner our support.  Our position is consistent with Green Party principles, particularly the principle of supporting rehabilitation for ex-offenders.  Indeed, that is a position that my party has held consistently.

Full transcript of the debate can be read at:

http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/Assembly-Business/Official-Report/Reports-12-13/03-June-2013/#8 

 

Why Northern Ireland Needs a ‘Civic Conversation’

 

Assembly Speech on Civic Forum
Tues 8th April 2013

Democracy has to be about more than simply turning up to vote every four years. I think that we have a democratic deficit, and the low voter turnout in the last Assembly elections should allow no party or Member to be arrogant, because, as was pointed out, even the DUP, as the largest party in the Chamber, is a minority party because it was elected by the small majority of those who chose to vote.

So, we have to look at different ways. I heard the different views on the Civic Forum, but I did not hear any alternatives about what we should do and how we should engage.

Mention was made of the fact that the Civic Forum’s genesis was the Good Friday Agreement and that that was 15 years ago. However, the agreement was voted for by the majority, and much larger numbers came out to vote then than at the last Assembly election. We cannot simply ignore that.

Mention was also made of the St Andrews Agreement. Members across the House may prefer it, but we have to remember that the Good Friday Agreement was agreed before an election, whereas the St Andrews Agreement was agreed after an election with no commitment in advance and no prior knowledge among the electorate that it was coming down the line. So, I think that the Good Friday Agreement has legitimacy. For the Democratic Unionist Party or, for that matter, any democratic party to simply dismiss it is, I think, arrogant and anti-democratic in its stance.

Gregory Campbell: I thank the Member for giving way. He and a number of other Members alluded to this business of the legitimacy of the Belfast Agreement, because of the democratic vote, and its contents, including the Civic Forum. Does he agree that about half the unionist community voted against the agreement, which contained the provision for the Civic Forum? Had there been a proposal that was voted against by half of nationalists, does anybody think that the British Government would have proceeded?

I accept that significant numbers of unionists voted against the agreement. What I do not accept is simply dividing Northern Ireland into two communities. The majority of people in Northern Ireland voted for it, and as far as I am concerned, I am here to represent the whole of Northern Ireland, not simply to divide up the community and say, “These are the people I represent”.

Putting that aside, I repeat that we are 15 years on, and now is the time to go back and look at the agreement. Is it everything? People voted for it in 1998, and we are now in 2013. We can look at it again, but we have to engage people, and we do not do that simply by telling them to turn up to vote every four years and leave us to it.

I support the motion, and I support the Civic Forum, but I considered tabling an amendment because I think that there are other things to consider and there is, perhaps, a better way.

Let us look at what the Irish Government are doing with their Convention on the Constitution, a time-bound process by which they are reviewing their constitution — I feel that the Good Friday Agreement is akin to Northern Ireland’s constitution. The Irish Government have engaged in a civic conversation between politicians and ordinary citizens, teasing out the issues and where change is needed. That is what we need to do with the Good Friday Agreement.

I am conscious that pointing to the Irish example may not appeal to some on the other side of the House. If you do not want to look at that, look at the example of British Columbia’s Citizens’ Assembly. So we have the examples from British Columbia and the Irish Government of better ways to engage society.

We need, 15 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, to look at what changes we need. We have heard much talk in the House about bringing in voluntary coalition, reducing the number of seats and making other major changes to the Good Friday Agreement, but remember that it was dubbed the “people’s agreement”. The DUP claimed to have changed the Good Friday Agreement at St Andrews. If they did, they did so without going back to the people to ask for their permission. If we are to change the Good Friday Agreement, we need to go back to the people and ask them whether they agree to our changing their agreement. It cannot simply be a political conversation, and, to date, it has been only a political conversation. We need proper engagement with the public. We need to bring them in, hear them and set up a formal process.

I support the Civic Forum. I believe that an important step would be to look at having a year-bound civic conversation, similar to the Irish Convention on the Constitution or British Columbia’s Citizens’ Assembly. That would allow us to bring people in and hear in a formal, structured way what they genuinely think about different issues. Even when we come to vote, we vote on whole manifestos, not individual issues. A civic conversation would allow us to look at individual issues. We need to look at that option because there is a democratic deficit: if the riots and protests in the streets were not enough to tell us that, low voter turnout should be.

Note: The motion was passed by one vote.  The full transcript of the debate can be read at:

http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/Assembly-Business/Official-Report/Reports-12-13/9-April-2013/#7

 

Assembly Speech on ‘Recent Unrest’
Monday 10th December 2012

First, I would like to put on record the Green Party’s condemnation of the violence that has occurred over the past week. In particular, the Green Party would like to stand in solidarity with any political representative who had their home or office attacked or who had threats made against them. We would also like to condemn the violence against the PSNI, which has sought only to protect our democracy.

It is always important that we as political representatives are mindful of the language we use in political debate, recognising that our words can have an impact throughout our society. However, on Wednesday evening, when I got the word that the home of Councillors Michael and Christine Bower and their young daughter was attacked, I became acutely aware of the vulnerability of my family. For the first time in my political career, I felt that I had to watch what I said for fear that my family could face a similar attack. For some in the House, I know that that has been a reality of their political career over the past number of decades. However, when I entered politics, I hoped and believed that Northern Ireland politics had moved on, and I see these attacks as a major step backwards. Attacks and threats against any elected representative are unacceptable and undermine our democracy.

The issue of identity has been at the heart of Northern Ireland politics. We have rightly sought to move away from identity as a source of division to a position where we have mutual respect. Diversity can and should be celebrated, not feared. Speaking personally, there are many aspects to my identity. In Northern Ireland, I have the right to dual nationality, so I can be, and am, both British and Irish. However, I am like many people who probably feel more comfortable with the term “Northern Irish”, but I am also European. I am a father, a son, a brother, and an uncle. I am also a vegetarian. So, there are many things that make up who I am and my identity.

I am proud of who I am, and that includes the part of me that is proud to be British. I am proud of the National Health Service, which is free at the point of use. I am proud of our welfare state, which ensures that we all have a safety net should we find ourselves unemployed, as so many have during this economic downturn. I am proud of our democracy and the freedom of speech that underpins it. I am proud of the freedom of the press to hold us, as elected representatives, to account. Whether the Union flag flies at City Hall, Stormont or anywhere else for that matter, I will be no less British, no less Irish and no less European. Indeed, I will be no less than what I am today.

The real attack on my identity has been the attacks by those who undermine that freedom of speech by making me fear that what I say could result in attack on my family.

The attacks on the social welfare system and the institution of the NHS by politicians at Westminster and in the Assembly have led me to take to the streets. I have taken to the streets and protested with trade unions and other workers who have sought to defend the institutions that they see as integral to their identity and well-being. However, we did so peacefully, and I call on anyone who wishes to protest any decision of our democracy to do so peacefully. However, we must be mindful that riots tend not to happen when we have high employment, high educational achievement and financial security. So, whether it has been the riots in London or the riots in Belfast, we must remember as politicians that addressing those issues is our core duty.

If we are to show leadership in the Assembly, those are the issues that we should be tackling. You cannot eat a flag, a flag will not heat your home and a flag cannot give you self-esteem. If we are to improve the lives of those in Protestant, unionist and loyalist estates, such as Ballybeen, where I grew up, we need to get back to addressing those important issues of economic, social and environmental importance.

Within the Green Party there are members who consider themselves British, members who consider themselves Irish and members who consider themselves Northern Irish. Indeed, we have members from England, Scotland, Holland and Germany, and others from across the world. That diversity does not divide our party and should not divide our society.

the full transcription of the debate can be read here

Justice for Cody Rally

Stormont 24th November 2012

 

 

EMA Rally


 

 

Voting at 16

This is the first in what I hope to be a regular series of video blogs on my work as an MLA.  I recorded this short piece in advance of my Assembly motion calling for the age of voting to be lowered to 16 years old.

 

The Giants of Creationism

While I think the reference at the Giant’s Causeway is fairly innocuous, I think the real concern is that it’s the thin end of the wedge; especially in the context of Nelson McCausland’s attempt to have creationism presented as an alternative view of the origin of the universe at the Ulster Museum when he was Culture Minister.

The statement that there are those who believe that the world is 6,000 years old is true, the suggestion that the debate still continues is less true. Those who believe that the world is 6,000 years old are a small minority even within the religious community, the debate they are having is largely with themselves.

This is similar to when the media insist on giving equal weight to climate sceptics, despite the fact that the vast majority of scientists recognise climate change as a reality, not as something to be believed or not. At least the Giant’s Causeway Visitors’s Centre only makes a brief mention of Creationism and does not posit it as an equal and valid alternative.

The real question is ‘why was the reference included at all?’ The fundamental(ist) problem is that there are those in senior positions in NI’s government who push the creationist agenda, most notably Nelson McCausland and Edwin Poots, Social Development and Health Ministers respectively.

The reference at the Giant’s Causeway Visitors’ Centre does not itself bother me, but the reason for it being there is more of a worry. The fundamentalist views of those in government are restricting gay men from giving blood, preventing the production of a sexual orientation strategy, and more generally helping to maintain Northern Ireland as a conservative state.

Ultimately the totality of what Messrs Poots and McCausland stand for is what I am in politics to oppose, the reference to creationism at the Giant’s Causeway is but a small part of their ideological agenda.

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