Is there consensus…?

The time-lag in appearance, and the somewhat haphazard nature, of the Hansard record of Hain’s the Preparation For Government Committee may have something to do with the apparent desire of some parties to spin announce what they want it to be seen to have happened as quickly as they can. But the record is eventually appearing, and it’s worth reading if you have time. After setting down the topics for discussion, back on 9th August the parties first tackled the devolving of policing powers and, as well as seemingly a consensus in favour of the single Justice Ministry option in the NIO discussion document, there was, it would be fair to say, a slight fixation on setting a time-frame for devolving those powers from the Sinn Féin members.. On which model, from the NIO dicsussion document, the ministry should be based..

The Chairman (Mr Molloy): The proposal is that models 3 and 4 be excluded from discussion. Are members agreed?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairman (Mr Molloy): We have narrowed down the discussion to models 1 and 2, unless any party wants to suggest a completely new model.

But, from the beginning of the meeting, Gerry Kelly set out the SF focus..

The Chairman(Mr Molloy):….. Today, we will discuss two sections of the revised list: devolution of policing and justice; and the Northern Ireland Office discussion paper ‘Devolving Policing and Justice in Northern Ireland’. It is up to members how we handle this, but it has been suggested that the discussion on devolving policing and justice be separated into two categories: the option for ministerial and departmental structures; and matters for devolution. Are members content?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairman (Mr Molloy): Everyone has a copy of the discussion paper, which contains the models. I suggest that members discuss the paper, and then I will take proposals arising from that discussion, rather than interrupting the discussion with proposals that may be counteracted later on. We will take it as we go, but if members are happy to have the general discussion followed by proposals and recommendations at the end, we will proceed.

Mrs Long: There are three issues around the devolution of policing and justice matters: the struct­ures; matters which will be devolved; and the timing of devolution. There are, therefore, three components to be discussed. We have decided how to deal with the first two, but when will we discuss the timing?

The Chairman (Mr Molloy): The timing should be the next issue to be discussed.

Mr G Kelly: I hazard a guess that the longest discussion will be on the NIO discussion paper, so it might be helpful to discuss the timing first or second.

The Chairman (Mr Molloy): Are you suggesting that we discuss timing in the first session?

Mr G Kelly: I am open to that, but since you suggested discussing the models first, let us do that. However, timing is relevant and, I hope, discussions on it will not take as long as those on the actual discussion paper will take.

Needless to say the issue of who defines national security, as an excepted matter – ie not to be devolved – crept into the discussions.. natch.

While, on the timing, when the committee did turn its attention to the issue, the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long put forward an argument that I find persuasive

Mrs Long: For policing and justice powers to be devolved, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister must put a motion jointly to the Assembly, which would be subject to a cross-community vote. The Secretary of State would then have to ensure that the appropriate conditions were in place, and a vote would be held in Westminster. That is laid out in the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006. Therefore, the powers cannot be devolved unless they achieve cross-community confidence.

Taking that as read, is it possible to set a target date by which policing and justice powers can be devolved? It is possible to suggest that conditions must be right and, at the same time, suggest that a target date should be set — those propositions are not mutually exclusive. Setting such a date puts down a marker — members are not saying that devolution of those powers will happen in two years’ time, but simply that it is their wish that it should happen then. It shows that they are prepared to commit to working towards it. That is important for those who believe that the issue of devolution is a key part of this negotiation process. Indicating at least a willingness to move forward does not mean that in two years’ time all the other locks can be unpicked. It is simply a matter of showing willing, and it is important that members are willing to set a date.

I do not want to set a prescriptive date or deadline. It would be pointless to suggest that if this issue were not cleared up in two years’ time, the entire matter should fall apart on that hook. However, it is important to set a target towards which we can work in respect of the legislative framework, and so on. At a certain point, the Secretary of State will also need to introduce legislation to allow for policing and justice powers to be devolved. A process must be entered into, and a two-year target is not an unreasonable one.

There is, however, a telling moment of dialogue that perhaps even our favoured playwright, the author of my favoured analogy for The Process™ would appreciated.

The Chairman (Mr Molloy): Nothing has been agreed yet.

Mrs Long: Gerry Kelly inferred that a single ministry had been agreed.

Mr G Kelly: Nobody has said —

The Chairman (Mr Molloy): I wish to make this clear: nothing has yet been agreed.

Mr A Maginness: Our discussion is becoming a bit raggedy. At this point, we must not be overambitious. Members have agreed on a single Department.

The Chairman (Mr Molloy): We have not actually agreed on that. We are trying to get to that stage.

Some Members: We have.

The Chairman (Mr Molloy): We have a proposal.

Mr A Maginness: We have not yet formally agreed on that. It might be wise to not formally agree until —

Mr McFarland: Until everything is agreed. [Laughter.]

A point that was made very clear when the Committee attempted to confirm consensus on the timing of devolving policing powers.

The Chairman (Mr Molloy): We must draw this matter to a conclusion because we are running way over time.

Is there consensus that a target date for the devolution of policing and justice should be set at two years after restoration?

Members indicated dissent.

Is there consensus that the devolution of policing and justice should occur as soon as possible?

Mrs D Kelly: Chairman, I think that the consensus —

The Chairman (Mr Molloy): Do we have consensus or not?

Members indicated dissent.

Mr Weir: Who said no?

Mr G Kelly: I did.

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