Stumbling blocks seen for Hillsborough Agreement
Stumbling blocks seen for Hillsborough Agreement

After months of arguing and years of stalemate, the first step in transferring policing and justice powers from the Westminster parliament in London to the Six-County Assembly at Stormont should begin tomorrow [Tuesday] when a new justice minister is expected to be nominated.

The nomination, which was due to take place today, was postponed until tomorrow in what may be the first sign of difficulties ahead for the process outlined in the agreement at Hillsborough.

On Friday, after two weeks of difficult negotiations, Sinn Fein and the DUP finally sealed the deal at Hillsborough Castle that sets a timeline for devolving policing by April and setting up a new parading body by the end of the year.

The agreement will require the co-operation of the DUP First Minister Peter Robinson and the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in order for it to work.

Mr Robinson sounded a warning immediately afterwards when he said he had secured “a clever device” to ensure that the powers would only be devolved if a new way of dealing with parades was also acceptable to unionists.

Senior DUP MP Gregory Campbell also declined to endorse the of the agreement, mysteriously refusing to comment until what he said “the full detail” of the deal is revealed.

The 21-page ‘Agreement at Hillsborough Castle’ was unveiled after more than 100 hours of intense talks between the DUP, Sinn Fein and the Dublin and London governments.

Mr Robinson described it as a “sound deal” while Deputy First Minister Mr McGuinness said it could be “the day when the political process in the north came of age”.

The agreement is divided into five sections mainly focusing on the transfer of policing powers and DUP demands on sectarian parades.

Today assembly members were due to nominate a justice minister but the move was postponed as the SDLP and Ulster Unionist parties still oppose the nomination.

Speaking at Stormont this [Monday] afternoon, Mrs Ritchie said she hoped things would become “a little clearer” after a meeting of party leaders on Tuesday.

“We will make our judgement on the Hillsborough arrangement when we know what is on the table and, more importantly, what is under the table,” she said.

“If the two parties won’t reveal what they have already agreed then we will be pressing the two governments for greater transparency.”

The minister must have a cross-community vote so by a process of elimination, it is likely to be handed to the leader of the moderate unionist Alliance Party, David Ford.

But Mr Ford said today his party is not yet in a position to put forward a name and demanded progress on policies to tackle sectarianism in the North.

“At the present time we have not seen enough movement around a shared future and around the policies for a department of justice for an Alliance nomination to be made,” he said.

And in a Sunday newspaper, Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey also warned that the deal agreed by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness is “not done yet” and said his party has reserved judgement.

But if all goes well at Stormont this month -- a big if -- a vote will take place in the assembly chamber in March with the powers transferred from Westminster to Stormont by April 12.

The timetable for parading is a little more convoluted with the deal keeping the Parades Commission in place for any contentious parades this summer.

However, a working group of six people is to set up and report back to the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister within three weeks and a draft bill to be enacted by the end of the year.

It remains unclear if any secret side-deals had been cut between the political parties and the two governments as part of negotiations around the Hillsborough Agreement.

It is thought the DUP had sought guarantees on the parades issue as well as the retention of “personal protection weapons” for former British army soldiers and police.

There was a surprise that the agreed text featured a detailed timetable for legislation on a new body to tackle contentious parades but made no reference to the Irish language and briefly referred to other outstanding issues from the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams described the Hillsborough deal was “a staging post”, while deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness claimed a process to progress the rights of Irish language speakers and North/South aspects of the St Andrews Agreement had been agreed.

Speaking at Hillsborough on Friday morning at the announcement of a deal, Mr McGuinness said it had been “a difficult negotiation”.

“This is hardly a surprise given the reality that I am an Irish Republican and others here have a completely different view. I believe in a united Ireland. They want to maintain the union with England.

“This should not mean that we are incapable of respecting each other, of treating one another as equals and proceeding on the basis of partnership, respect, fairness and equality. I am utterly determined to continue to work in good faith and with a good heart with my unionist colleagues. I want to work in harmony with Peter Robinson for the good of the entire community.

“That is what Sinn Fein is about. We signed up for agreements on Good Friday and at St. Andrews and here today. We proceed on the basis of implementing these commitments.”

Mr McGuinness also spoke of “the need to deliver for our community”.

“There are families and children living in poverty; elderly people feeling vulnerable and in fear. There are young families burdened by massive mortgages and in fear of losing their homes; people without jobs.

“Our government needs to reach out to these people. It needs to deliver. We need to confront and defeat all kinds of hatred. With determined and courageous leadership we must continue to lead that shrinking minority out of the trenches of the past. In this I am confident we can be assured of the support of the vast majority of our people. We need to make life better for all our children and grandchildren.

“That is what this agreement must mean in practice. Fully functioning political institutions operated for the people in true partnership and equality. Let us now all face into the future with confidence in ourselves and in the people who elect us.”

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