Policing agreement buys time for Executive

 

ANALYSIS:The DUP and Sinn Féin have ruled themselves out of contention for the justice portfolio, writes Dan Keenan

SEPTEMBER WILL be an interesting month at Stormont. The DUP and Sinn Féin-led Executive which has not met since mid-June, bogged down by a series of protracted disagreements, is under some pressure to announce progress.

Yesterday's announcement by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness that three key elements of a package to deliver policing and justice devolution have been agreed, allows them to claim just that.

Whether it brings devolution closer is another matter.

The publication of the letter written by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, in which they ask the Executive's scrutiny committee to examine their proposals, appeared to take many in the other parties by surprise.

The letter claimed Sinn Féin, which wants speedy justice devolution, and the DUP, which is much more cautious, had agreed three key principles.

These were that a single justice department would be run by a single minister. Interestingly both parties ruled themselves out of consideration for the position, supposedly to engender cross-party support, thus leaving the door open to Alliance, the Ulster Unionists or the SDLP.

Startled or not by the announcement, David Ford wasted little time in claiming that his Alliance party would much rather oppose the Executive than join it. He distrusts any goods on offer from Sinn Féin or the DUP just as much as some republicans distrust his unambiguous spurning of ministerial office.

Within an hour of the Robinson-McGuinness plan being published, three parties had said they would not nominate a candidate for minister.

Sir Reg Empey said the Ulster Unionists would stick to their line of urging caution on devolution, leaving the SDLP as the sole party which both wants justice devolution and is prepared to take on the job.

None of which means that justice is a walk-in position for a second SDLP minister.

The Robinson-McGuinness letter refers to the choice of minister by Assembly cross-community vote rather than by the d'Hondt mechanism which the SDLP believes would automatically present it with the justice job.

North Belfast MLA and barrister Alban Maginness has made little secret of his keen interest in the position. However some SDLP sources believe any new ministerial job would be better in the hands of leader and former Deputy First Minister Mark Durkan, especially with next year's EU election looming.

Clarity is still awaited on the question of the overall size of the Executive. The DUP has hinted the number should be maintained at 10 which would mean that the creation of a justice ministry would necessitate the amalgamation of two existing positions - possibly at UUP or SDLP expense.

Some nationalists, unsurprisingly, dispute this. They will oppose any attempt to establish a justice department at the expense of the one ministry it already holds.

Sinn Féin hopes yesterday's announcement is a particularly significant breakthrough and must facilitate early devolution. The DUP states cautiously that a response has been sought from a committee which will not even meet until next month.

Other outstanding issues remain to be examined and this will take time. For the moment though, the tossing of some responsibility for consideration of justice devolution to an Assembly committee buys this Executive some breathing space.