The Belfast Assembly has voted in favour of taking over policing and justice powers for the Six Counties from London, despite opposition from the Ulster Unionist Party.
The Assembly decision followed a long and angry debate in which the Ulster Unionists resisted pressure to support the move, which was supported by the DUP, Sinn Fein and the SDLP. The vote should now lead to the creation of a Department of Justice for the Six Counties after the powers are devolved by April 12th.
All 44 of the nationalist assembly members supported the vote, with 35 out of 52 unionists also supporting it.
Nine other members also voted in support of the powers being devolved.
Thirty-four out of 36 DUP Assembly members voted in favour of devolving justice. The only exceptions were the Speaker Willie Hay, who only casts a deciding vote, and South Antrim’s Willy McCrea who was “attending a funeral” according to the DUP.
In the debate, Sinn Fein’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness accused the Ulster Unionists of opposing a deal to devolve policing powers for cynical party political reasons.
The Ulster Unionist executive last night unanimously backed its leader’s call to vote against the devolution of policing and justice powers, despite strong pressure from senior politicians at home an abroad.
The UUP claimed the executive must deliver on other issues -- particularly the reform of decision making within the executive -- before it can take on key law and order functions.
Ulster Unionists also pointed to the prolonged stalemate over academic selection for schoolchildren as an example of the “dysfunctional nature” of the Executive, a stance which was blasted by Mr Mr McGuinness as he tabled today’s motion.
“The UUP are on record as stating that they will not support the election of a local minister to oversee the administration of policing and justice until there is agreement to test 10 and 11-year-old children to determine which school they will attend,” he said.
“I have to say that these are the most dysfunctional political positions I have ever come across,” the Deputy First Minister said, adding: “I acknowledge that this is a challenge to us all but it is one to which we all must rise. We need to put aside party political posturing and to begin an era of joint and equal working.”
The DUP and Sinn Fein had the strength to pass today’s measures, but a rejection from the UUP deprived them of the unanimous support they had sought .
Ulster Unionist deputy leader Danny Kennedy also today claimed that a side deal existed between the British government and Sinn Fein to see the British Army ultimately removed from from the north of Ireland. He challenged DUP members who were sceptical over last month’s agreement at Hillsborough to voice their concerns but reserved his strongest criticisms for Sinn Fein and British Direct Ruler Shaun Woodward.
He said Mr Woodward’s attempts to persuade the party to back the deal, including a bogus opinion poll and phone calls from US Secretary of State Hillary and former US President George Bush among others, had amounted to undue pressure.
“The Secretary of State, in my view, has behaved disgracefully, particularly over recent days, and his attempts to bully and to bribe and to blackmail this party, I think, has abused the high political office that he holds,” said the UUP representative.
“He should pack his bags well in advance of the forthcoming general election.”
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the politics of progress had now replaced the politics of division in Northern Ireland.
“The completion of devolution, supported by all sections of the community in Northern Ireland, is the final end to decades of strife.
“It sends the most powerful message to those who would return to violence: that democracy and tolerance will prevail,” he said.
The next step of the process is the selection by the Stormont Assembly of a MInister for Justice, widely expected to be Alliance Party leader David Ford.