Hillsborough – was it really a deal?

Northern Ireland’s First and Deputy First Minister have outlined a timetable for reform of the management of parades. But problems remain around the vacancy of Justice Minister.

Speaking to Assembly Members at Stormont, Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuiness set out the proposed route forward on this contentious issue:

“It is our intention that a draft bill (on parades) will be completed for consultation by late March. The consultation process will run until early June.

“We will introduce a bill in September at the assembly. We intend to support all necessary steps in the assembly to ensure that the bill completes all stages before the end of 2010.”

Under the terms of the Hillsborough Agreement last week, parties agreed to establish a six member, cross community committee to look at how to reform the framework in which parades operate in an effort to get cross party support for a new model of regulation. The first meeting of the group took place on Tuesday, with Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly reporting the meeting has having been “business like”.

Tuesday also saw the first meeting of party leaders at Stormont to try and find a consensus candidate for the new position of Justice Minister with Alliance Leader David Ford having spoken of “frostiness” between Sinn Fein and the DUP. Furthermore, Mr Ford – seen as the favoured candidate for the Justice post – failed on Tuesday to put his name forward for the job as many had expected. He told UTV:

“Now clearly there was progress at Hillsborough last week and there are still discussions ongoing. At this stage we are not at a position to put a name forward today but clearly there is potential there.”

By Wednesday however, Ford concluded that “There has been positive and constructive engagement and some signs of movement.”

So far, only the SDLP have nominated North Belfast MLA, Alban Maginness for the Justice Minister’s post. In doing so, Margaret Ritchie , the SDLP’s new leader said:

“There should not be any departure from the democratic principles as enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement.

“We in the SDLP want policing and justice delivered as quickly as possible but there should not be any corruption of democracy in terms of the appointment.”

Ritchie’s comments were a clear argument that the post of Justice Minister should be chosen, as with any other on the Stormont executive, under the terms of the complex d’Hondt system. If applied here, the SDLP would be most likely to take the Justice post. However, under the terms of the Hillsborough Agreement, a Minister will instead be elected by a cross community vote in the Assembly. Ritchie’s position attracted this angry response from Martin McGuiness:

“The reality is that if this is done by d’Hondt then the SDLP would have the fourth choice. If we were to accept the SDLP’s argument, it’s certain that the DUP would chose this department and we would have a unionist minister in charge of justice.

“Everyone knows that the DUP will not go for d’Hondt. The argument put by the SDLP is nonsensical.”

Meanwhile, whilst pledging to do all he could to make the Hillsborough deal work, DUP First Minister, Peter Robinson made a stark warning about what the DUP would do if Sinn Fein were to renege on any parades deal:

“I think everybody has recognised that there are methods available, particularly to the two main parties in this Assembly, which can be used at any and all times if they wish to bring down institutions.”

On Monday, writing in the Belfast Telegraph, Ed Curran wrote:

“The Hillsborough deal is done, but is it really a done deal? I ask that question upon reading the agreement because the arrangement for the transfer of justice and policing is about the only certainty I can find within its carefully crafted wording.

“So much else — from somehow coming to grips with contentious parades to kick-starting Stormont — depends on further discussion, more debate and a level of agreement which has so far eluded everyone.”

It remains to be seen whether Hillsborough is a deal that will stick, or whether it is merely a plaster, waiting to come off.

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