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22 October 2009 Edition

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Policing and Justice - agreement on transfer published

THE financial package from the British Government to support the transfer of powers over Policing and Justice from Britain to the North of Ireland was published on Wednesday.
The development follows the latest round of negotiations on the package between British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the North’s First and Deputy First Ministers, Peter Robinson of the DUP and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness. McGuinness held talks with Foreign Affairs Minister Micheál Martin in Dublin before meeting Mr Brown in Downing Street.
Gordon Brown held over three hours of talks with First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at Downing Street on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. It was the third such meeting in the past week.
Martin McGuinness described the talks as “a good night’s work”. He said the transfer of powers over policing and justice was achievable by Christmas.
“People will see what is I think an incredible achievement against a backdrop of a very difficult financial position and see a great opportunity for us now to move.”
Asked if the publication of the document indicated that a deal has been done between all sides, he said: “I am absolutely certain that Gordon Brown, Peter Robinson and myself have reached an agreement.”
The deal removes a major stumbling block to further political progress in the North and across the island of Ireland.
Last week, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness briefed other parties at Stormont on the outline proposals for the transfer of the powers from Westminster.
The financial package is understood to be in the region of £800m (€888m).
The document released on Wednesday spells out a complex, multi-million pound strategy to fund the police, courts and prison services in the North.
Among other things the letter pledges that:
  • The North’s Executive will have access to reserve funds to support policing and justice in the event of exceptional circumstances, while the Treasury will also make available an additional fund up to £37.4m (€41.5m) in 2010/11.
  • Money will be made available to complete the construction of a new police training college.
  • An additional £20m (€22m) per year to the end of 2012/13 will help overcome a huge backlog in legal aid payments being faced by the court service. A further one-off payment of £12m (€13.3m) will ease pressure on the courts, with a promise to provide up to a further £39m (€43.2m) if necessary.
  • The Government is to gift four former British military sites to the North’s Executive, including in Omagh where there are plans to use former British military-owned land to build a new schools campus.
  • Sale of the gifted sites will also help ease pressures such as equal pay claims facing the civil service from a portion of its workforce.
Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Micheál Martin has welcomed the publication of the package as “a major step forward”.
Sinn Féin has already given its approval to the £800m package, while DUP leader Peter Robinson said he would discuss it with his DUP colleagues and other political parties.
It is known that rejectionist elements within the DUP oppose the transfer of Policing and Justice powers just as they oppose the other aspects of the Good Friday Agreement such as power sharing and  the all-Ireland architecture of the current political dispensation.
Speaking to An Phoblacht from London on Wednesday where he was involved in the negotiations on the package Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly, junior Minister at the North’s Office of First and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) said:
“It is a substantial package, worth in the region of £1 Billion. I suppose the success of it is that this is outside the Executive and the Assembly’s budget. It is to deal with policing and justice and the transfer of that and it will not affect Health or Education or any of the other frontline services, which are under pressure anyway. This was one of our main concerns.”
Kelly said it was “a substantial step forward” adding that “we hope to continue the momentum now towards the transfer of policing and justice powers over to Ireland”.


HARD NEGOTIATION
Kelly said that from a Sinn Féin point of view the party would have wanted policing and justice transfer before now but added: “That doesn’t take away from the fact that there has been a hard negotiation, especially over the last week or so. The DUP have said I think, on a number of occasions, that if the finances are got right then they are up for it.”
Asked what the agreement meant in terms of the actual timeline for the transfer he said that there is a legislative process to go through, that there are other issues not to do with finance which he did not think were “hard issues” but which needed to be sorted out.
“Our view is that this should be done very rapidly, “But we are dealing with another party in this. There has to be agreement between ourselves and between the other members of the Executive.”
Asked whether he foresaw any obstacles to further progress in transferring powers he said, “We hope there should not be. This was the issue which was painted up publicly time and again.
“Martin McGuinness and myself are actually meeting David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party later today. He has indicated publicly that he would be in support of Policing and Justice being transferred and the financial package. He hasn’t spoken on this particular package but there are indications that he will be very positive. That also is true of the courts service and the Chief Constable of the PSNI.
“There is a lot of speculation about who will form the next British Government, so we think that it’s important to meet David Cameron. In fact, I think that this is the first time that Martin or any republican leader has met the Conservative Party leader.”
Asked how important the development was in the wider political context and for the Peace Process Kelly said:
“It is one of the last parts of the jigsaw of taking control of matters away from Britain and to Ireland. We have the Assembly, we have the Executive, we have the power sharing Agreement at the base of all of this. The last part of that jigsaw is to get policing and justice. If I could put it this way – any society where the political leadership cannot agree to take charge of issues like policing and justice haven’t really matured to the point where they are in absolute control. So, I think it’s important from that point of view.”
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