Alliance Party Leader David Ford has expressed disgust at recent media speculation that the Secretary of State is about to table legislation to enable him to assume enabling powers regarding the transfer of policing and criminal justice, in the absence of any discussions among local parties. Notably, the Government seems set to act in a manner at odds with their own commitments given in the December 2004 Comprehensive Agreement. This will create apprehension among a large section of the community and will further hinder the political process.
David Ford stated: “At issue here is how we give local politicians power over policing and justice policy to make these directly accountable to the electorate, without creating apprehension across the community. Anyone with any grasp of reality knows this can only be done by placing policing within a power-sharing Executive operating on the basis of collective responsibility.”
The timing of any movement on the devolution of policing and criminal justice is yet another issue which could seriously undermine the political process. But yet again the Government has changed its position and seems set to ignore reality.
In the now defunct comprehensive agreement from December 2004, the Government envisaged that such a move would only occur after discussions, and by implication agreement had been found among the local parties on the modalities for any such devolution. The timing of any transfer of powers would require Assembly support to ensure cross-community support as far as possible.
It now seems that the Government wish to move in advance even of discussions among the parties, never mind re-establishment of the Assembly itself. Such behaviour fits into the recent pattern of developments taking place on a bilateral basis between the UK Government and the Republican Movement, sidelining the democratic parties in Northern Ireland.
At present all four Government proposals either give unfettered power to one minister, or provide for a deadlock between two Ministers. Any suggestions of giving either the DUP or Sinn Fein complete control over policing or justice is simply going to raise justified fears among a large section of the community. This is what will happen in a balkanised Executive without proper measures of accountability.
Given that none of the models so far set out for the devolution of these powers is either desirable or workable, the Government would be better off placing its energies into discussions with all the parties including, for a change, those with a genuine understanding of and commitment to democracy.