On target dates and commitments – or deadlines and conditions

The Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Bill passed its Commons stages without amendment last night – you can read the full transcript here – it goes to the Lords today. One area of focus in the debate was the timing of both Sinn Féin’s Ard Fheis on policing, and the potential devolution of powers on justice and policing. Comments by the Secretary of State for Wales etc, Peter Hain, prompted this Irish Times Breaking News headline, “North to get policing powers in 2008 – Hain”, but at the risk of being included in what Peter Hain labelled as the “marauding media” [*ahem* – Ed] his, reported, claim that the St Andrews Agreement included “a clear commitment and a target of May 2008 for the devolution of policing and justice powers” deserves closer inspection.The debate focussed, at least in part, on when exactly Sinn Féin would hold their Ard Fheis and whether an election will be held without policing being publicly endorsed by the party..

From the debate in the Commons

Mr. Hain: I have not, but it is absolutely apparent and crystal clear to me that, to fulfil the terms of this legislation and to fulfil the implementation of the St. Andrews agreement, Sinn Fein has made it clear that it needs an ard fheis to support it in the way forward. That ard fheis will need to be called at the appropriate time.

Mr. Donaldson: When?

Mr. Hain: It is a matter for Sinn Fein; but of course, it is important that Sinn Fein makes its position clear.

This legislation provides the mechanism to go forward. The twin pillars of power sharing and the rule of law are enshrined in the pledge of office that all Ministers must take on 26 March, to take office. The pledge of office requires all Ministers to

“promote the interests of the whole community represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly towards the goal of a shared future”.

Politicians everywhere, particularly those who aspire to govern, are there not just to represent and work for those who voted for them and loaned them their mandate but for those who did not.

Politicians everywhere, particularly those who aspire to govern, are there not just to represent and work for those who voted for them and loaned them their mandate but for those who did not.

In a society that has been as bitterly divided as Northern Ireland, politicians who have been entrusted with a mandate that will give them access to power have an even greater obligation to govern for all and not just for their own. The pledge requires all Ministers to

“participate fully in the Executive Committee, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council”.

If devolution is to deliver good government, all the institutions of government must function effectively. Anything less than a full commitment to that will sell everyone in Northern Ireland short. The pledge of office also requires Ministers to

“observe the joint nature of the offices of First Minister and deputy First Minister”.

Those are fundamental tenets of power sharing, which go well beyond the symbolism—important as that is—of two different political traditions working together in equality without sacrificing either principle or integrity.

On support for the rule of law, the pledge of office, as enshrined in the Bill, could not be clearer. All Ministers will

“uphold the rule of law based as it is on the fundamental principles of fairness, impartiality and democratic accountability, including support for policing and the courts as set out in paragraph 6 of the St. Andrews Agreement”.

Let me remind the House what paragraph 6, and clause 7(2) of the Bill, says about support for law and order:

“We believe that the essential elements of support for law and order include endorsing fully the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the criminal justice system, actively encouraging everyone in the community to co-operate fully with the PSNI in tackling crime in all areas and actively supporting all the policing and criminal justice institutions, including the Policing Board”.

I recognise that the issue of policing has been contentious ever since Northern Ireland came into being, and still more so during the conflict, but we are in a very different and much better place now.

And later in the debate, in response to a question from Nigel Doods, Peter Hain stated

21 Nov 2006 : Column 484

Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman asked me about the Sinn Fein position on policing. The Bill is crystal clear—it could not be clearer—about the necessity for Sinn Fein to sign up to all the specifics of policing spelled out in paragraph 6 of the St. Andrews agreement and enshrined in clause 7. The Bill is the first measure to do that. I would have thought that he would give credit for that. In my view, Sinn Fein needs to call an ard fheis sooner rather than later. I shall not get into discussing specific weeks or days, because that would not be helpful. The end process is that Sinn Fein candidates who hope to be Ministers must accept the pledge of office, as spelled out in clause 7.[added emphasis]

The timing of the Ard Fheis has potential implications for the election on March 7, a situation that the Irish Times’ Frank Millar had speculated on

Thursday night’s DUP statement [their ‘maybe’ response] certainly suggests it simply intends to leapfrog this one: “As Sinn Féin is not yet ready to take the decisive step forward on policing, the DUP will not be required to commit to any aspect of power-sharing in advance.”

It would even appear that that position could carry the DUP all the way into the planned March 7th election, since there is no indication yet that Sinn Féin is committed to take a final decision on policing before the planned electoral “endorsement” of the St Andrews deal – and seemingly nothing in it requiring them to do so. Thus we could be facing into yet another “election to process”, surely prompting questions as to why, and to whose benefit?

Also from last night’s debate, Peter Hain’s comments on the media are, in effect, little more than an attempt to bully journalists into not asking awkward or difficult questions of government or parties

I can well understand why the parties are edging forward with considerable caution and I can quite see why feelings are fragile, why anxious party members worry about what their leaders may have accepted and why a marauding media picks away at the fragilities. The easy option—for politicians and, of course, for journalists, too—is to prise open the detail of understandings and to unnerve either or both sides with negatives. The harder option is to stick with it, to show courage and fortitude, and say that the positives outweigh the negatives by a million miles. In Northern Ireland’s politics, it has always been easier to say no, always harder to say yes.[added emphasis]

And no wonder, when his interpretation of what is happening veers between fudging one area which had been rock-solid… while, at the same time, presenting actual fudge as rock-solid.

The Irish Times carried his comments on the commitment, and target date of May 2008

Which are recorded in Hansard

The St. Andrews agreement also included a clear commitment, and a target of May 2008, for the devolution of policing and justice powers to the restored Executive. We expect all concerned to take that target seriously. Indeed, the Bill requires the Assembly to report to the Secretary of State before 27 March 2008 on progress towards the devolution of policing and justice powers. I want to make it clear that, once policing and justice is devolved, there is nothing in the pledge that would remove or unreasonably constrain any future Minister of policing and justice from making legitimate criticism of the police. After all, proper accountability was central to the Good Friday agreement’s vision for new policing arrangements in Northern Ireland and was a core element of the Patten report’s recommendations. Proper accountability, which can sometimes include constructive criticism, is essential in delivering the police service that Northern Ireland deserves. There is a world of difference between that and a failure to support Northern Ireland policing and justice institutions.”[added emphasis]

The “clear commitmment” in the St Andrews Agreement[pdf file]

7. Discussions on the devolution of policing and justice have progressed well in the Preparation for Government Committee. The Governments have requested the
parties to continue these discussions so as to agree the necessary administrative arrangements to create a new policing and justice department. It is our view that implementation of the agreement published today should be sufficient to build the community confidence necessary for the Assembly to request the devolution of criminal justice and policing from the British Government by May 2008.[added emphasis]

And while the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Bill does require a restored assembly to report back to the Secretary of State

18 Report on progress towards devolution of policing and justice matters

(1) The Northern Ireland Assembly must make a report to the Secretary of State before 27 March 2008—
(a) as to the preparations that the Assembly has made, and intends to make, having regard to paragraph 7 of the St Andrews Agreement, for or in connection with policing and justice matters ceasing to be reserved matters;
(b) as to which matters are likely to be the subject of any request under section 4(2A) of the 1998 Act that policing and justice matters should cease to be reserved matters;
(c) containing an assessment of whether the Assembly is likely to make such a request before 1 May 2008.

The only action required by the Secretary of State is to

(2) The Secretary of State must lay a copy of the report before each House of Parliament

As I’ve said before, the Secretary of State may set a target date, and may hope to achieve that date, but the current mechanism for devolving powers on policing and justice already set out, in the NI (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, grants both holders of the offices of First and Deputy First Ministers a veto on whether that goes ahead.

Unless the government is now going to say that, in circumstances where one of the parties holding those offices do not agree that the confidence within the community exists for the devolving of those powers by March 2008 – they are then going to force through devolving powers on policing and justice by May 2008 whatever happens between now and then, the target date remains only a target date and not a commitment.

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