The decision by the Northern Ireland assembly to vote in favour of the devolution of policing & justice powers to Stormont has received a largely warm welcome.
The decision by the Northern Ireland assembly to vote in favour of the devolution of policing and justice powers to Stormont has received a largely warm welcome. Northern Ireland secretary Shaun Woodward said the vote would “be the last part of a jigsaw that enshrines the peace agreement itself”, with Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly calling it a “huge step forward for the people of the north and throughout Ireland”.
And speaking from Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared it to be “an important step in ensuring a peaceful and prosperous future for all of the people of Northern Ireland for generations to come”.
However, the broad welcome for the vote, across the political spectrum was tempered by the decision of Sir Reg Empey’s Ulster Unionist Party to vote against the transfer of policing and justice powers for reasons detailed here on this site on Monday.
Speaking during debate Sir Reg said:
“As a democratic political party pledged to making power-sharing work in an inclusive manner for all the people of Northern Ireland – and we exercise our rights refusing to bow to the blackmail and bullying to which we have been subjected in recent weeks.“
The UUP’s opposition drew criticism from unionists and republicans alike. In proposing the motion to support the devolution of justice and policing powers, Democratic Unionist Party first minister Peter Robinson said:
“Throughout history there are times of challenge and defining moments. This is such a time. This is such a moment.
“Leadership is not about what’s easiest, or what best suits our party interests, it is about doing what is right for our people.“
His deputy Martin McGuinness added:
“The UUP are on record as stating that they will not support the election of a local minister to oversee the administration of policing and justice until there is agreement to test 10 and 11-year-old children to determine which school they will attend.
“I have to say that these are the most dysfunctional political positions I have ever come across.”
Many people know say the UUP’s opposition has called into question David Cameron’s judgement.
As Left Foot Forward has previously reported, in 2008 Cameron oversaw a formal electoral alliance with the UUP, under which their parties would field joint candidates. In light of this partnership, it was reported that former US President George W Bush had spoken with Cameron to urge him to put pressure on the Ulster Unionists to support the completion of devolution in the interests of unity.
In response, Cameron said:
“The one thing we cannot do is force people to vote a particular way.”
The Conservatives reaction to the vote at Stormont, however, underlines the political problems now faced by the Tory leader. In its initial response, a spokesman for the party made no mention of the UUP, saying:
“We welcome the fact that devolution of policing and justice is going to happen. We wanted all four parties to be involved and for it to be decided by local politicians.”
But in a later statement, Cameron seemed more concerned with aligning himself with the UUP’s views, when he said:
“Concerns about the functioning of the executive as a genuine four-party coalition prevented the Ulster Unionists from backing today’s vote, and I hope these will now be resolved in a spirit of genuine partnership.“
Such double-speak places Cameron between a rock and a hard place – trying to welcome the Stormont vote on the one hand, whilst striking a more sceptical note in line with his political allies.
It also leads to a number of tough questions that both Cameron and his Northern Ireland spokesman Owen Paterson will have to address:
• Having formed an electoral pact with the UUP, any member from this joint ticket elected to Westminster will take the Conservative Whip. Given this, will the UUP be forced, where conflict arises, to back policies they do not believe in and vice versa?
• The decision by Lady Slyvia Hermon not to contest the next election on the joint Conservative/UUP platform means that in effect the party has lost its sole MP. If the Conservative/UUP ticket were not to return any MPs after the election, how would that affect David Cameron’s credibility in Northern Ireland?
• When a crisis next arises at Stormont, how could he, with any authority, seek to bring sides together faced by the prospect of not getting sufficient support from the people of Northern Ireland for a seat in Westminster?
David Cameron’s position is now increasingly in doubt, and raises questions not just about his judgement, but to what extent he and is party can be seen a credible alternative government, prepared to put national interests ahead of petty party interests.
As Alliance Leader, David Ford, and the likely new Justice Minister made clear during yesterday’s debate:
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“If the UUP vote no on the agreement then the Tories face no option but to end the link with them to save what credibility they have left on Northern Ireland.
“If the Tories allow this sham marriage to continue after a no vote, they will demonstrate a total lack of principle and leadership.“