15 April 2010 Edition
Policing and justice transferred
By Laura Friel
Welcoming the successful transfer of policing and justice powers, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams pointed out that “for the first time since Partition, there is a justice minister accountable to a locally elected assembly”. Speaking shortly after the Assembly vote accepting transfer on Monday 12 April, the West Belfast MLA said the transfer was something many people had said would never happen.
“Today was the day that, we were told, would never happen. There was once great opposition from the unionist parties to what is happening today. But the age-old lesson of history is never to say ‘never’, or ‘never, never, never’. As for the SDLP, it threw the towel in on policing legislation almost 10 years ago,” said Adams.
“Despite all that, Sinn Féin stuck at the hard grind of making progress. We have delivered, with our colleagues, an increased policing and justice budget and a whole raft of new legislation. The reality is that the North never had acceptable or proper policing. Therefore, today is yet another important, proud day in the progress and necessary steps forward of an ongoing process of change,” said Adams.
The West Belfast MLA was speaking after an overwhelming majority in the Assembly endorsed the transfer of policing and justice powers. 17 Ulster Unionist MLAs voted against. All 44 MLAs designated as nationalist voted in favour with 35 out of 52 unionists also endorsing the motion, meeting the required cross-community support.
In a second vote, David Ford of the Alliance Party was successfully elected as Minister of Justice, as negotiated by Sinn Féin and the DUP at Hillsborough. Both the SDLP and UUP nominated their own members for the post but were unsuccessful. Taking up his new position, Ford recalled the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and described the transfer of policing and justice as “another significant step forward in the peace and political process”.
Sinn Féin MLA Raymond McCartney, a former POW who took part in the 1980 hunger strike, was elected as vice chair of the Justice Committee. McCartney said the committee would have a particular responsibility to hold the Justice Minister to account and to “ensure that the ministry delivers fair and proper justice and policing for the population”.
The new Justice Department will have a budget of 1.5 billion and instead of being controlled by British ministers the funding will be allocated directly to the power sharing Executive. The new Justice Minister heads a department of 4,500 staff, which in line with all other Assembly departments will be scrutinised by an oversight committee of MLAs. The department will also be scrutinised by the Policing Board.
Addressing the Assembly prior to the vote, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness outlined some of the steps taken to make the transfer of policing and justice possible.
“In November 2008, the First Minister and I charted a way forward that was marked by 37 steps. Almost all the steps in that process have now been accomplished. We have in place legislation, we have secured additional financial resources and we have demonstrated community confidence. That enabled the First Minister and me, on 5 February, to announce agreement at Hillsborough Castle and a date for the devolution of policing and justice responsibilities: 12 April, which is today” said McGuinness.
“The Minister will be a full and equal member of the Executive, and the Department will have the same status as others in this Administration. In the coming days, a Justice Committee will be established, integrating policing and justice within the scrutiny and legislative structures of the Assembly. This really is a huge step forward, and it demonstrates a decisive advance for the institutions and their growing maturity.”
Commenting on the car bomb which exploded outside a British Army barracks in Hollywood moments after the transfer of powers deadline, McGuinness said people should be under no illusions about the real target of that explosion.
The car bomb exploded shortly after midnight at the entrance of the barracks complex, bringing down some peripheral wooden fencing. An initial claim of responsibility by a micro grouping known as ‘the Real IRA’ was later withdrawn and responsibility was subsequently claimed by a rival group.
“The bomb may have been placed outside Palace Barracks, but the real target was the Peace Process and the political institutions with which we have been charged with stewarding in recent years,” said McGuinness.
“The work in which we are engaged today sends outs a very clear message. We all know and understand the history of the North of Ireland. There was a failure of politics in the past, which led to a situation in which there was conflict, injustice, inequality, violence and death on the streets. Now it is different.”
“As a result of the negotiations and the agreements that were reached, we are clearly in a situation in which the political process is in command and in which we dictate the pace. We are sending very clear messages to all those who are intent on destroying the peace process and the political institutions that their activities are totally futile.”
“There is no going back. Those who try to drag us back to the bad old days will fail miserably because we have taken up our responsibility as political leaders to build a better future for all,” said McGuinness.
Addressing the Assembly Sinn Féin MLA and member of the Policing Board, Alex Maskey described the transfer of policing and justice powers as an important occasion for the whole Assembly.
“I hope that, under the tutelage of the incoming Minister, we will take the opportunity that is afforded to us by this move forward to have a full and informed debate on the type of criminal justice system that we want, which is one that benefits our community more than the current system does,” said Maskey.
“We must take the opportunity to debate whether we want a larger penal colony here or whether we want to put more effort and resources into working, particularly with young people, to ensure that they are prevented from moving into antisocial or petty criminal lifestyles as they grow up.”
“Many choices have to be made in this society. The establishment of a department and the appointment of a new minister will give us the time and opportunity to make those fully informed choices,” said Maskey.
GERRY ADAMS: ‘For the first time since Partition, there is a justice minister accountable to a locally elected assembly’