Poll shows NI devolution support


Pressure was mounting on the Ulster Unionists today to drop their opposition to the landmark deal to devolve policing powers to Northern Ireland after a new government poll indicated sizeable public support for the move.

Three quarters of people in the North wanted law and order functions transferred to Stormont, according to the Northern Ireland Office survey published last night.

The suggested 75 per cent endorsement for the transfer of security responsibilities to the power-sharing administration is higher than the support (71 per cent) for the Belfast Agreement in the 1998 referendum.

The results were published hours after the UUP restated its intention to oppose the devolution at a crucial vote in the Assembly tomorrow.

Significantly, out of those people polled who considered themselves as UUP voters, 73 per cent said they wanted to see the powers transferred.

While Sinn Féin and the DUP have the electoral strength to push through the Hillsborough Agreement when it is put to the vote at Parliament Buildings, a rejection from the UUP will deprive them of the unanimous support they seek.

The UUP will make a final decision on whether or not to back the move at a meeting of the party’s executive tonight. But a change of heart looked unlikely last night after party leader Sir Reg Empey said nothing substantive had been done to assuage his concerns about the accord.

He remained steadfast in his stance despite forthright criticism from the DUP and Sinn Féin over the weekend and an intervention by the pro-deal US administration in the shape of phone call from secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

It remains to be seen if the poll findings will prompt a rethink.

The UUP claims the Stormont government needs to demonstrate an ability to address other unresolved matters - such as the uncertainty over education reforms - before it can be trusted with security powers.

Last night, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Shaun Woodward said it was clear the public at large wanted to see the deal done.

“This poll shows that overwhelming community confidence has been firmly established across all communities in Northern Ireland for the transfer of policing and justice powers in the coming weeks,” he said.

“This is the last piece of the devolution jigsaw and it will deliver in the coming weeks and months the conditions for more investment and more jobs for Northern Ireland.”

He said a unanimous Yes vote would send a very clear message to dissident republican terrorists intent on wrecking the peace process.

But hours before the poll was published, Mr Empey had insisted his party would not be pushed into supporting the agreement.

“I want to make it clear that the UUP will not be blackmailed or bullied by anybody over our attitude to the devolution of policing and justice,” he said last night. “We have approached this issue with a view to ensuring that the powers that Stormont currently has are being exercised properly before we add to the list. So far, we have either been shut out or our reasonable requests have been rejected.”

However, he did not fully close the door on a potential change of position ahead of the UUP Executive meeting tonight.

The proposal to devolve powers in April was outlined in the landmark Hillsborough Agreement that was agreed between the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin last month.

The accord also contained plans to deal with a series of outstanding issues facing the Stormont executive, including changes to the way contentious Orange order parades are managed.

When asked whether they backed the overall Hillsborough deal, 67 per cent of respondents were supportive and 13 per cent opposed. The poll showed that 67 per cebt of Ulster Unionist supporters favoured the agreement .

In answer to a further question on who was best placed to make decisions on policing in Northern Ireland, 68 per cent said that local ministers would be better while 14 per cent would stick with direct rule ministers.