A controversial Bill to ban ex-prisoners convicted of serious offences from becoming ministerial advisers at Stormont has been passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
A majority of MLAs voted for the contentious proposal to become law following a lengthy and often fractious debate at Parliament Buildings in Belfast.
The SDLP, which had found itself holding the balance of power inside the chamber, ultimately resisted vociferous calls from Sinn Fein and some victims of the Troubles to trigger an Assembly mechanism that would have stymied the legislative change.
Demonstrating the divisiveness of the emotive issue, other victims of the conflict also travelled to Stormont to urge politicians to back the legislation.
The Private Member’s Bill was tabled by Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister in the wake of Sinn Fein’s appointment of former IRA prisoner Mary McArdle as adviser to its Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin three years ago.
Ms McArdle was convicted for her role in the IRA murder of judge’s daughter Mary Travers in Belfast in 1984.
Her hiring was met with outrage by Miss Travers’ sister Ann, who campaigned vocally in support of Mr Allister’s proposal.
While Sinn Fein has since moved Ms McArdle to another political role with the party at Stormont, one of the advisers to Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is set to lose his job as a result of the Bill’s passage.
Paul Kavanagh, from Londonderry, served 14 years for killing three people in an IRA bombing campaign in England in 1981.
Addressing the Assembly during the debate, Mr Allister said he would like the legislation to be known as “Ann’s law” in tribute to Ms Travers’ campaigning.
“This House - this community - owes a tremendous debt to that lady, who spoke with such compelling candour, honesty and persistence on behalf of all innocent victims,” he said.
The TUV leader insisted the law would ensure no one would have to experience what she did when Ms McArdle was hired.
“Never again, never again will such re-traumatising of a victim’s family be permitted,” he said.
“This Bill, first and foremost, is about righting that wrong and about saying that never again should it happen to anyone else.”
Sinn Fein strongly opposed the legislation - which will 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 was an acknowledgement that ex-prisoners have a role to play in shaping the future of the region.
In a marathon two-hour speech, which drew allegations of filibustering from across the chamber, Sinn Fein’s Daithi McKay branded the Bill “discriminatory”.
Claiming the proposal had set victims against ex-prisoners at a time when integration should be the priority, he accused Mr Allister of trying to set back the peace process.
“That is the aim and raison d’etre of the sponsor of the Bill,” he said. “It is to set back the peace process and to set back the Assembly.”
He said the Bill would implement “old-style unionist discrimination”.
“It is wrong,” he said. “It is unjust. It is against human rights. It is against equality. It is against the Good Friday Agreement. It is just scoring political points.”
SDLP members faced intense pressure over their position on the issue in the run-up to the vote.
The numerical make-up of the Assembly left the party effectively holding the fate of the legislation in its hands.
Its decision last week not to join Sinn Fein in signing a so-called petition of concern, having originally indicated it probably would sign, paved the way for the Bill to become law.
A petition would have required the Bill to gain the support of a majority of nationalists and unionists inside the Assembly, rather than prevailing in a straight majority vote.
But with 30 signatures required to reach the threshold for a successful petition, Sinn Fein’s 29 MLAs were unable to trigger the mechanism.
With the SDLP facing down late pressure to sign the petition, and instead following through with its pledge to abstain in the vote, the Bill passed 56 to 28 with the backing of unionist members.
Explaining the SDLP’s stance, MLA Dominic Bradley said his party made its decision with the rights of victims in mind.
He said “flaws” in the Bill meant the only approach the party could take was to abstain.
“We think that it is flawed but in a situation where victims are being so sadly neglected for political reasons, the lesser evil in this case is to abstain and I believe that is an honourable position and indeed it is an ethical position,” he said.
“I would like to think that this House could go further than the debate on this Bill to deliver an equal, ethical plan for dealing with our past and for the sake of victims and for the sake of the future I hope that we do that.”
As the debate got under way inside the chamber, outside victims had spoken in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings to urge the SDLP to either hold firm or perform a late U-turn.
Campaigners for families bereaved as a result of state actions said they felt let down by the SDLP.
Some of them challenged SDLP MLA for Foyle Colm Eastwood directly as he walked to the Assembly chamber.
John Loughran, whose uncle was shot dead by the British Army in Belfast in 1973, said the Bill was “divisive”.
He added: “We believe as families that the legislation is flawed, we feel in some ways we have been misled by the SDLP and in many respects we also feel betrayed.
“What we now see is a piece of flawed legislation that is contrary to the needs of putting victims first.”
But later Serena Hamilton, whose off-duty soldier father David Graham was shot dead by the IRA in Co Tyrone in 1977, expressed her support for the Bill.
“They should not have high-powered jobs,” she said of former paramilitary prisoners.
“Our loved ones are not here to have high-powered jobs - £80,000 to £90,000 a year they are getting paid for these jobs.
“My father is lying six foot under and has been for 36 years, and we have lost out in every aspect of life. They have got a high-powered job, they are being glorified and they are being rewarded for what they have done.
“That should never be the case, no matter what - whether it is a terrorist, paedophile, rapist, anything - if you commit a crime, you should serve the time.”
After the vote, Ann Travers expressed her satisfaction.
“I am so pleased that I have done everything I have done,” she said.
“I loved my sister Mary who was beautiful, gifted, talented - didn’t deserve to die the way that she did, but certainly didn’t deserve to have her memory stamped on.