In a historic step, the Belfast Assembly this afternoon chose Alliance leader David Ford as the first Six-County Justice minister in nearly forty years.
A range of policing and justice powers were officially transferred to Belfast from London at midnight last night in a transition which has been welcomed by the North’s political parties but greeted with a high-profile bomb attack by the breakaway ‘Real IRA’.
Mr Ford welcomed his election in the Assembly today, which came with the support of the two major parties, saying: “This is, I believe, a significant day for Northern Ireland.
“It is a step forward in the peace process, in the political process, and in ensuring that the institutions which have been in place since 1998 are firmly affixed and are playing their part in serving the needs for the people of Northern Ireland.”
He said the bomb attack at the headquarters of British military intelligence in Holywood, County Down, overnight underlined the need for politicians to work together.
The new minister will have control over budgetary functions and routine policing matters, while security and normalisation issues have been ‘reserved’ by London and will come under the purview of British military agencies.
The minister will also be responsible for the management of the prisons, the courts, the forensic science service, compensation systems and youth justice.
Agreement on the transfer of powers was finally achieved in February at Hillsborough, after nearly two weeks of intensive talks mainly involving the DUP, Sinn Fein and the two governments.
Matters relating to state security remain “reserved” by London, as do responsibilities around “sensitive” issues linked to the conflict.
In particular, the British Secretary of State will retain authority over contentious issues such as the the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and other inquiries into Britain’s ‘dirty war’ in Ireland, such as collusion and shoot-to-kill ambushes and assassinations.
The PSNI chief, the Chief Justice, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Policing Board, which oversees the PSNI, and the Attorney General will remain operationally independent of the ministry.
Mr Ford’s selection means the moderate unionist Alliance is the fifth party to join the Executive.
Welcoming the transfer of powers, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said: “Today’s the day we were told would never happen. There was great opposition from the unionist parties. And the SDLP threw in the towel on policing legislation almost 10 years ago in 2001.
“We [Sinn Fein] have delivered an increased policing and justice budget and a whole raft of new legislation. We have secured the transfer of policing and justice powers; and won the support of most of the other parties.
“So this is yet another important step forward in the ongoing process of change. The peace process is being challenged but the peace process is working,” Mr Adams said.