The passage of legislation to give effect to a deal on the transfer of policing and justice powers has seen sharp exchanges between the nationalist parties on the issue.
The bill before the Westminster parliament “has the confidence” of the Belfast Assembly, claimed British Direct Ruler Shaun Woodward, despite the opposition of the nationalist SDLP, led by Mark Durkan.
It would allow the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast at some point in the future, but other important aspects of the move remain open, in line with the deal forged between Sinn Fein and the DUP late last year.
The deal came after a lengthy stand-off between the parties, resulting in the failure of the North’s cabinet-style Executive to meet for some five months.
Mr Durkan said it would again lead to stand-off and stalemate after the Assembly elections of May 2011, as a result of a “sunset clause” that ensures the “temporary” legislation becomes void in May 2012.
“It doesn’t give a date for the devolution of justice,” he said.
“Nor does it ensure that there is a nationalist minister for justice, as we are entitled to have under the Good Friday Agreement.
“But it does mean that if we actually get the devolution of justice, then it can collapse in both May 2011 and 2012.
Mr Woodward said nothing would happen without the agreement of the parties in the North.
“In that sense, this bill not only has confidence but has ‘Made in Northern Ireland’ firmly stamped upon it.”
Mr Durkan warned the transfer of policing and justice powers could lead to a “zombie minister with no department”.
His party sought to have the minister appointed through the d’Hondt power-sharing system of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which would give the post to them. Under the new deal, the appointment is to be made by a cross-community vote in the Assembly.
“It is in effect legislation for stand-off and stalemate after the assembly elections of May 2011, when the grandstanding will begin again as the DUP and Sinn Fein jockey for position ahead of 2012.
“This could lead to the bizarre situation of a department with no minister.”
But Sinn Fein spokesperson on Policing issues Alex Maskey accused the SDLP of being in disarray. He said Mark Durkan “seemed incapable of making up his mind on whether he supported the transfer of powers or not”.
“Remember it was the SDLP who when faced with the Mandelson Bill which gutted Patten first voted for the legislation, then against and then abstained.
“Seamus Mallon famously declared after the passage of that Bill that no more policing legislation was possible.
“Unlike the SDLP who have done nothing to secure the transfer of Policing and Justice powers Sinn Fein has remained committed to this key issue.”
Meanwhile, DUP leader Peter Robinson cast doubt on the plan when he declared there was “no sense” in the Assembly taking on policing and justice powers without adequate funding.
While welcoming the bill, and the “very considerable steps” taken by Sinn Fein in giving support to the PSNI, he said worries about the cost remained.
“There is no sense in Northern Ireland’s Assembly having responsibility for policing and justice and not having the resources to do the job.”
In an unusual step, both Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness today [Thursday] issued a joint plea for financial “certainty”.
The Stormont administration is totally dependent on an annual multi-billion pound subvention from the British exchequer, as well as funds of up a billion Euro promised by Dublin for the construction of road links.
The appeal for reassurances on financial guarantees comes amid a deeping economic crisis on both sides of the Irish Sea, with Dublin likely to make cuts to planned infrastructural development.
“We are seeking assurances from both governments that we can proceed as planned, we need certainty here,” the statement read.
“We recognise the difficulties that both governments face but as a fledgling institution we need certainty moving forward.”