A historic vote in the Belfast Assembly has bolstered last month’s agreement at Hillsborough on policing and parades but led to renewed divisions between the two main unionist parties in the North.
The Assembly decision followed an acrimonious debate in which the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) resisted pressure to support the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast.
The other parties voted to back the devolution of powers and the creation of a six-county department of justice, with Alliance leader David Ford expected to take the post as justice minister.
On April 12, barring unexpected hitches, Ford will gain powers on funding of policing and on sentencing guidelines in the Six Counties, as well as oversight of the Life Sentence Review commissioners. PSNI Chief Matt Baggott will remain operationally responsible for directing and controlling the PSNI, while British military agencies such as MI5 and MI6 will retain control of “national security” issues.
In a joint statement, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and 26-county Taoiseach Brian Cowen welcomed the move: “This is a significant step forward for the people of Northern Ireland, with overwhelming support from all sections of the community.
“It sends a clear message of confidence in the future, and commitment to build on the gains of the peace process that have been achieved over the last 12 years.
“We congratulate all who contributed to this important decision. We look forward to the completion of the devolution of policing and justice powers on 12 April. For its part, the British government will now introduce the necessary transfer orders in Westminster to facilitate this timetable.”
Sinn Fein said it was a good day for the peace process and a good day for Ireland, and pointed out that transfer of powers was a long overdue part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Assembly members were visibly heartened as the historic vote was passed.
Speaking afterwards, Sinn Fein Dail leader Caoimhghin O Caolain said: “The importance and significance of this should be lost on no-one, least of all the Governments in Dublin and London who need to ensure that they play their part to the full in ensuring that the Agreements continue to be fulfilled and that the Executive, Assembly and All-Ireland structures are fully supported.”
But he accused the UUP of electioneering over the deal in a bid to put unionist rivals the DUP under pressure.
“The Conservative Party in Britain also needs to learn the lessons of its dalliance with the discredited Ulster Unionist Party.”
During a fractious debate at Stormont, the DUP leader Peter Robinson took the moral high ground, even as senior DUP members privately vowed that nationalists would never hold the key justice ministry.
“I believe it is time for us all to move forward. There must be no going back to the bad old days of the past,” said Robinson.
“Throughout history there are times of challenge and defining moments. This is such a time. This is such a moment.” He added: “Leadership is not about what’s easiest, or what best suits our party interests, it is about doing what is right for our people.”
Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness said: “There are some in the chamber who have expressed concerns about the course of action on which we are embarking. This is understandable as these are uncharted waters.
“However, we know that the transfer of these powers makes sense. The community knows this and supports this course of action.”
However, Mr McGuinness said he was “saddened and disappointed” that the Ulster Unionist Party was not supporting the resolution.”
They are opposed, in my view, to the transfer for cynical party political reasons,” he said.
The UUP had claimed the ministerial executive must sort out other outstanding matters -- such as the long-standing row over post-primary school transfer arrangements -- before it can take on law and order functions.
UUP leader Reg Empey said his party had “refused to bow to the blackmail and bullying to which we have been subjected in recent weeks.”
The dispute at Stormont has put pressure on British Conservative Party leader David Cameron over his newly formed alliance with the Ulster Unionists.
One senior Tory warned that voters will face an “inconsistent” choice after the UUP ignored his request to support the devolution deal, while a leading US congressman challenged the Conservative leader to act as an honest broker. Richie Neal, a Democrat from Massachusetts who is chairman of the Friends of Ireland, told Cameron: “My suggestion to any prospective leader would be that you should never allow a weaker ally to negotiate for you.”
Prospects of the two unionist parties agreeing single candidates in an attempt to win back closely contested seats form nationalists in Fermanagh/South Tyrone and South Belfast also now appear to have faded.
In what was seen a potential electoral position to avoid blame for the loss of the seats, the DUP issued a renewed unity appeals.
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds urged the UUP “despite our differences, despite the fact that they voted against us yesterday to come with us, find unity to try and win seats back for unionism at the next election”.
The UUP and the DUP met at the Orange Order headquarters in Belfast in December 2009, amid mounting speculation over a possible merger.
Further talks were also held at Hatfield House in England in January, chaired by the Conservative Party.
On Wednesday Mr Dodds said the UCUNF alliance between the UUP and the Tories suffered from the Ulster Unionists’ refusal to endorse devolution of policing and justice.
“Cameron backed the deal. Empey voted against it”, Mr Dodds said.
“The cold reality is that they are bitterly divided and incapable of providing leadership.”
UUP Assembly member David McNarry said the DUP had ditched the chance for greater co-operation with his party. “Clearly the DUP have consummated their political marriage to Sinn Fein and in doing so ditched the prospect of unionist unity,” he said.
TUV leader Jim Allister argued the credibility of the DUP was in tatters. “At least the Ulster Unionists had the self-respect and dignity to stand their ground, despite a maelstrom of orchestrated and obscene pressure. By stooping to these levels the DUP and others showed their desperation,” he said.