Growing tensions between Sinn Féin and the DUP over the proposed appointment of a chief Victims’ Commissioner has caused the passage of a Bill to be unexpectedly postponed.
The penultimate stage of the Victims and Survivors Bill, which was supposed to pass at an accelerated speed by the Assembly was abandoned when neither DUP First Minister Ian Paisley nor Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was present. No reason was given for the postponement.
A major delay over the victims’ issue had appeared to be resolved recently when it was decided in December to appoint a panel of four commissioners to work on behalf of victims, rather than the one originally envisaged. The original appointment to the post -- of an RUC police widow -- had to be thrown out when a court ruled the appointment was made by the British government as an overt political favour to the DUP.
A proposal from the moderate unionist Alliance Party to elevate one of the recently appointed commissioners to the position of chief commissioner has caused new friction over the appointment.
The DUP, SDLP and Ulster Unionists are thought to back the amendment, but Sinn Féin believes it would create a hierarchy within the commission.
Sinn Féin spokesman for victims’ issues Francie Molloy accused the DUP of backtracking on the terms of the original agreement between the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in December.
“Sinn Féin reached an agreement with the DUP before Christmas on the way to proceed on the issue of a Victims’ Commission,” he said. “It meant four commissioners of equal status, reaching decisions through consensus. There can be no hierarchy of commissioners, just as there can be no hierarchy of victims.
“That was the agreement - that was what Ian Paisley publicly committed his party to doing. That is what the legislation needs to deliver. Amendments which subvert that agreement are not acceptable.” However, the DUP’s Sammy Wilson said it was only proper that amendments should be considered.
“What we are doing is to ensure first of all we have a commission which is independent and where there can be a clear spokesperson for that commission, not four different ones, so victims know there is some clarity,” he said.