Another corner turned on road to new Ireland
Another corner turned on road to new Ireland

By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)

Careful study of the papers, statements and interviews that were published by the First and Deputy First Minister, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, outlining the agreed process for the transfer of policing and justice powers clearly indicates that a Department of Justice could be functioning by the early months of the new year.

In the documents, statements and interviews given by both ministers there is an underlying acceptance, and indeed a political and moral imperative, to move from where we are now - without a justice ministry - to the setting up of a Department of Justice ‘without undue delay’.

The phrase ‘without undue delay’, which is contained in most of the ministerial public commentary, is the oil in the engine of the government system which will drive the process forward to the point where a justice minister will be shortly elected by the assembly.

The phrase also recognises that we are dealing with an issue and a situation which requires urgent and daily attention by the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister.

It is they who will determine the speed with which the situation is moved forward and that is crucial because an irreversible momentum is required to prevent those in the political and military systems opposed to this breakthrough smothering it at birth.

Ministerial responsibility for Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness will include liaising and guiding the new justice minister, appointing the lay members of the Judicial Appointments Commission, who in turn make recommendations to them about judicial appointments and agreeing, as they did, John Larkin being named as the new attorney general.

Furthermore Sinn Féin has made it clear that its preference for the first justice ministry will be a member of the SDLP.

It is quite clear now and has been throughout the course of the negotiations between Sinn Féin and the DUP that failure to transfer policing and justice powers to the north’s executive could have led to the collapse of the institutions.

The transfer of power deal between Sinn Féin and the DUP is highly significant for two reasons - organised unionist opposition to the transfer of policing and justice powers has largely receded and an opportunity is now emerging which could see a prolonged period of political stability to replace the uncertainty and insecurity of recent times.

This stability will now allow for a period of pre-planning accompanying the functioning of the all-Ireland ministerial council, executive and assembly.

The new circumstances will mean the executive can apply itself and its resources in a determined and focused way to helping all those affected by the unprecedented and far-reaching economic crisis.

One of Sinn Féin’s key objectives in the course of the negotiations with the DUP was to convince them that they are in a partnership government with republicans and that there is no ‘no-go area’ of government for republicans or nationalists.

The practical working out of the deal will reflect that particular reality and while Sinn Féin and the DUP have both accepted that they will not nominate for the justice post, this is a temporary arrangement for the exceptional circumstances that we are in.

Sinn Féin’s calculation is that it is far more important to secure the transfer of powers away from London to Belfast than be vexed about it securing the post.

Policing and justice is one of a few remaining political powers still residing in London. Its transfer to Belfast will extend control on a very important issue to politicians and people on this island.

The point has almost been reached where the combined power and remit of the Irish government based in Dublin and the north’s administration based in Belfast is a practical expression of joint sovereignty by the nationalist and unionist people of this island over their own affairs.

This development is an important staging post in overcoming obstacles which stand in the way of peacefully securing an independent and united Ireland.

There are many issues yet to be resolved - equality, acht na Gaeilge, educational reform and the future of the Long Kesh site, among others but another corner has been turned in this country’s transitional development towards a radical, new and working all-Ireland political dispensation.

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© 2008 Irish Republican News