Northern Ireland devolution plans on the brink

The devolution of policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland are in a state of confusion. Contradictory remarks have come from both Whitehall and Stormont.

Plans for the devolution of policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland are in a state of some confusion after contradictory remarks from both Whitehall and Stormont.

Speaking at to an audience at Harvard University’s School of Government, Northern Ireland Secretary, Shaun Woodward concluded that, “We stand now on the edge of completing devolution.” He continued:

“I know that sometimes the rhetoric can be perplexing but I urge everyone to listen carefully both to what is said and what is not said.”

Woodward’s remarks came after the Northern Ireland Assembly passed legislation which would enable a new Department for Justice to be established once agreement is reached between the parties. However, Sinn Fein, Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuiness has warned in an interview with the BBC’s Newsline that the impasse on devolving justice powers could not go on, setting Christmas as a deadline for agreement, followed by action in the New Year.

Left Foot Forward has previously reported on the impasse, which has seen the DUP reluctant to accept the devolution of policing and justice until such a move had the support and confidence of all communities in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein however have previously accused the DUP First Minister of dragging his feet to appease hard-line unionists.

Speaking at the weekend, Sinn Fein Chairman, Declan Kearney, made a withering attack on the DUP, concluding:

“In recent weeks all the evidence indicates the DUP have no intention to support the transfer of policing and justice powers.

“Their continued intransigence is a serious political mistake. It is a train wreck political strategy and political consequences will be inevitable.

“All of this demonstrates that the impasse over policing and justice is about something deeper than a transfer of powers. It’s about whether political unionism is prepared to co-exist with republicans in equality and partnership.”

The comments led to an angry response from DUP First Minister, Peter Robinson, who the Newsletter quotes as saying:

“Even a cursory inspection will show that the only party threatening to wreck the political process is Sinn Fein. The DUP is not seeking to walk away from either the Assembly or Executive. I made the DUP position clear and comprehensible at my party conference.

“Nobody listening to what I said would be in any doubt about our commitment to making devolution work and making progress on policing and justice. As they appear incapable of understanding any message normal folk can easily digest, let me give it to them in liquidised form. The DUP supports devolution without equivocation.

“Sinn Fein have now told us that the process is in ‘meltdown’; it is in ‘freefall’ and now they say unless their demands are met there will be ‘political consequences’.

“Sinn Fein is creating the very instability that many people believe is an obstacle to devolving more powers.”

As a result of the harsh words being traded between the DUP and Sinn Fein, the Financial Times has described a recent a meeting between UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Irish Taosieach, Brian Cowen as “crisis talks”. It continued by reporting on concerns in both Governments about a possible collapse of the devolved institutions. In October, Gordon Brown wrote to MLAs, outlining a proposed funding package to secure the devolution of policing and justice.

Whatever one’s views, Northern Ireland and its devolved bodies stand at a critical point in their development and future.

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