After the Robinson affair, is a deal on policing and justice within reach?

Signs are emerging that a deal on policing and justice powers in Northern Ireland could be near to completion - a deal could be struck by the end of the week.

Signs are beginning to emerge that a deal on policing and justice powers in Northern Ireland could be near to completion, with the Belfast Telegraph reporting that a deal could be struck by the end of the week.

Expectations have been raised by news that the DUP and Sinn Fein are now holding talks with the UUP, SDLP and Alliance Party, raising the possibility that a deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein might have been brokered.

Speaking during question time in the Assembly on Monday, Acting First Minister Arlene Foster sounded more positive on moves to devolving policing and justice powers. She said:

“The Scottish Government have full control of policing and justice, without any implications for the union, and the Welsh Assembly is moving towards primary legislative powers. People need to be cognisant of those issues. So, when the outstanding issues are dealt with, policing and justice will be good for all the people of Northern Ireland and should not be viewed in a sectoral way.

The DUP have been more cautious than Sinn Fein on devolving police and justice powers. On the timing of a deal, UTV’s Politcial Editor Ken Reid has said:
“For a deal to stick it seems to me that date will have to be before the Westminster election which is due in May.”

Not all parties however have been so positive.

Jim Allistar, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party – a party formed in December 2007 by a splinter group from the DUP – has accused his former party of rushing through a deal because they feared the consequences of early elections. He said:

“Sinn Fein have held a gun to Peter Robinson’s head where he has a choice to make – either he rolls over and gives them their demand for policing and justice or he faces the collapse of the assembly and an election.

The Ulster Unionist Party have also warned that they will not be treated as “second class citizens”. Speaking before the all-party meetings, UUP MLA, Basil McCrea, who sits on the policing board, raised his party’s suspicions that the talks were a PR exercise, going on to express disappointment that his leader, Sir Reg Empey, only found out about the discussions through the media.

Meanwhile, Mr McCrea has accused the cross-community Alliance Party of “selling its soul” for the chance of securing the position of Justice Minister as and when negotiations are successfully concluded. His allegation came after the Alliance party withdrew a motion it had tabled for debate in Assembly, which was critical of the Executive. The motion read:

“This Assembly notes the large number of critical issues that the Executive have failed to resolve; expresses deep concern about the consequences for good governance, the economy and public services; and calls on the Executive to meet their responsibilities and to act in a collective manner for the good of Northern Ireland.”

McCrea has made clear his belief that the next Justice Minister should be appointed under the terms of the complex d’Hondt method, which would not warrant the Alliance achieving its first executive post. However, with Sinn Fein and the DUP ruling out taking the post themselves, preferring a cross-community appointment, Alliance party leader David Ford has been seen as the favourite to take on this sensitive post.

Reacting to the accusation, the Alliance Party’s Deputy Leader, Naomi Long, said that McCrea’s words were “riddled with inconsistencies” and were a “cynical exploitation of the current difficulties in the Executive for short-term party political gain”. Whilst positive signs may be emerging from negotiations, it should be remembered that given the twists and turns in the road to devolving policing and justice powers, nothing will have been completed until a Justice Minister is squarely in place at Stormont.

As David Ford has concluded:

Northern Ireland needs stability – we need a genuinely shared future and a new Justice Department with agreed policies which allow it to deliver for everyone from day one.”

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