Alliance Party Justice Spokesperson, Stephen Farry, has responded to the release of a Government Bill and Paper on the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly by stressing that these issues cannot be divorced from issues of accountability and collectivity.
Dr Farry stated: “We look forward to the eventual devolution of policing and justice to the Assembly. But the timing of this must be judged by community confidence rather than any arbitrary timetable.
“People value their sense of security, and they will not want that compromised either through policing powers being placed in the hands of local politicians prematurely or the wrong structures being put in place.
“Bluntly, given the legacy of unionists ran policing under Stormont and also more recent comments when they failed to back the police during disputes over parades, there will be concerns in some sections of the community. Equally, given the recent legacy of Republican terrorism, and the residual involvement of the IRA in criminal activity, there will be concerns about Sinn Fein exercising powers in these areas.
“We believe it is only realistic to contemplate a transfer of power around two years after the political institutions are restored and shown to be working. In this context, we welcome the Government’s proposal that the Assembly must request the devolution of powers through a cross-community vote. However, we believe that Parliament should also ratify this request through an affirmative resolution.
“None of the models for devolution of policing and justice set out by the Government would really appeal to the general population. In the absence of collective responsibility, the criminal justice and policing functions are far too politically sensitive to be given to one particular party through one Minister heading up a single Department. The functions are far too inter-related to be split between two Departments. The current OFMDFM structure, either in terms of the current office or of a replica for these particular functions, has proven to be far too unwieldy.
“By contrast, the dangers of placing these functions within a single Department of Justice would be substantially mitigated if that Department was part of an Executive working on the basis of collective responsibility. The Minister in question would be allocated his or her portfolio as part of inter-party negotiations, serve with the confidence of the Assembly, operate to collective responsibility, and could be removed from office in the event of a major breach of faith. Short of that major improvements in accountability to get away from the silo-mentality that ministers operated under the last Assembly are required.
“Most people would agree that the question of the devolution of policing and justice cannot be divorced from the wider question of improving accountability and collective decision-making within the Executive and the Assembly, and the Governments must take this on board.”