Time to dispatch that man Spellar
(Brian Feeney, Irish News)

It was October 2000. It was to be his first answer at the dispatch box as a newly promoted minister of state. He intended to say authoritatively, "Those cuts in Defence Medical Services have gone too far." A dangerous word 'cuts' when your voice is raised for public speaking. An 'n' intruded. MPs turned shades of scarlet and puce. Some nearly burst. Hacks in the press gallery had to be helped out of the Commons suffering from suspected hernias.

The Liberal Democrats' Paul Keetch offered 'sympathy' to the new minister on his first answer. Matthew Parris, the Times's brilliant sketch writer said it was the most interesting thing John Spellar will ever say in his life but sadly he did not mean to say it. Yes folks, it was John Spellar "one of our colonial officials" who began his ministerial career as he has continued it: a martyr to acute foot in mouth disease.

In recent weeks he has thrown himself into 'initiatives' to deal with crime in the north and has made spell-binding announcements on the purpose and aims of the Criminal Justice system here; tariffs for life sentences for murder, centralisation of forensic pathology services, and consultation on anti-social behaviour orders.

This burst of activity organised by the NIO on his behalf must mean they think everyone has forgotten that as minister for the armed forces, when Spellar wasn't making an ass of himself at the dispatch box, he was confirming, contrary to Queen's regulations, that soldiers convicted of murder could continue to serve in the British army. Queen's regulations are quite explicit: a soldier given a custodial sentence will be dismissed from the service. Over 2,000 British soldiers have been dismissed for that reason since Guardsmen Fisher and Wright murdered Peter McBride in the New Lodge district in 1992. You can be cashiered for cheating on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Not for murder though.

Spellar adhered to the unwritten British policy, namely that if soldiers murder someone here they are welcome to stay in the armed services, nay promoted.

Spellar won't talk about any of this. It's a matter for the MOD he says, as if he had no responsibility when he chaired the army board that took the decision to keep those killers in the army. Then he had the ineffable cheek to come over here and accept responsibility for, wait for it, political development, human rights and equality, and community relations.

The very fact that a guy like Spellar was sent here shows the contempt for nationalist susceptibilities at the heart of the British government. Perhaps they thought Spellar could tough it out. That's his reputation. He's known as the scourge of the left in England. As if his background and reputation weren't a big enough insult to nationalists, his presence at the moment compounds the difficulty. The stark fact is he can't fulfil his responsibilities.

Spellar is currently being boycotted by both Sinn Féin and the SDLP because of his appalling decision as armed forces minister. He's not welcome in Belfast City Hall or Derry Guildhall. Yet laughably, he is responsible for political development.

The review of the working of the Agreement comes up on 29 January. Now of all times there's an urgent need for someone credible in charge of political development. That can't be Spellar.

Take him away.

January 15, 2004

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