The Stormont Executive met on Thursday for the first time in over five months.
The meeting became possible after a deal was reached between Sinn Féin and the DUP on policing and justice that will ultimately see these powers transferred from London to Belfast.
They also announced that John Larkin, a former DUP advisor, would be the Executive’s first attorney general.
The agreement has averted the possibility of premature Assembly elections. The British government had reportedly planned to call such elections if the stalemate was not broken. standoff.
There was no specific date set for the transfer of justice powers but both Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness said they wanted the process concluded “without undue delay”. However, there were suggestions by unionists that the creation a Six County department of justice could take at least a year and is unlikely to be set up before the European elections in June.
The DUP wants to avoid policing and justice becoming the dominant issue in the election campaign, possibly to the advantage of hardline unionist opponent MEP Jim Allister.
The SDLP has also predicted it could be more than a year before justice powers are devolved in light of the requirement for consultation to determine whether there is sufficient unionist confidence for the move.
West Belfast assembly member Alex Attwood pointed to the lack of a set date for devolution and accused Sinn Féin of handing the DUP a series of potential vetoes that could potentially frustrate progress.
There was also nationalist concern that there was no agreement on issues such as the Irish language, the Long Kesh prison site and education.
Republican Sinn Féin blasted the move as a step towards a return of unionist majority rule.
“The threat by the British Government to hold an immediate Stormont election seems to have forced the hands of both parties,” said party President Ruairi O Bradaigh, who warned against a DUP bid to “return to the old Stormont of the 1960s”.
But hardline unionist Jim Allister claimed that too many concessions had been offered to Sinn Féin.
“The DUP, for the sake of office, has chosen [former UUP leader] David Trimble’s well trod path of a new tranche of concessions to IRA/Sinn Féin,” said the TUV leader.
But Deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness welcomed the resumption of Executive work programme.
“It is important that these institutions work in the interests of the people that we represent,” he said.
“Ourselves and the DUP, the UUP and the SDLP are all absolutely dedicated and committed. I don’t have any doubt whatsoever about Peter Robinson as First Minister. This is the work of Government, this is what we are charged to do by the people and that is what we intend to do.”
Details of the deal include:
- a justice minister to be selected from outside Sinn Féin or the DUP, by a cross-community vote of assembly members
- the selection process is outside the power-sharing system but will be reviewed by May 2012
- responsibility for judicial appointments will rest with the Judicial Appointments Commission
- efforts will be made to secure community support for the new arrangements
Both Sinn Féin and the DUP also agreed it was critical that the British government would ensure further funding is dispensed to the Stormont administration.
First Minister Peter Robinson and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness met British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Wednesday to discuss an increased subvention to the North.
A further half billion pounds sterling in funds was secured, and the disbursement of this money was the main focus of Thursday’s Executive meeting.
The British and Irish governments praised all sides involved in the latest deal, suggesting the development could represent the final “building block” in the peace process.