First steps towards devolution of policing and justice?

Something of a breakthrough on Policing and Justice, or a crisis with no apparent end? BBC Radio Five Live was first to report at 12.30 today. In effect they have agreed that it would consist of a single ministry chosen under cross community vote in the Assembly (which would thereby exclude DUP and SF) but, as yet, there is nothing further on timetable! The Irish Times speculates that this system is most likely to devolve powers to the Alliance party. But yesterday it was the SDLP who were making a pitch for the job. The UUP is thought to be cool on the matter.Now before, as one excited commenter who emailed me has suggested, people leap to the assumption that this is now all over, the detail, as one DUP insider told Slugger, is going to take a long time to work out. This ‘deal’ , they claim, is the outworking on a speech made by Robinson to the World Bar Conference at the end of June this year.

But the ‘deal’ is neither a deal, nor even an understanding. None of the other parties had been told about it before this morning’s press conference. David Ford when asked about it today, suggested that they would not break with the their position as the putative Opposition. Instead he told Slugger that they would get on with providing a coherent opposition to an incoherent government. In truth it has no appetite for fixing a problem it believes resides solely with the First and Deputy First Minister.

In which case, Alban Maginness pre-emptive strike looks a little, em, pre-emptive:

The DUP have held up devolution of justice long enough. They should not now be allowed to exclude a nationalist party from taking any new ministerial portfolio which may arise and they definitely should not dictate that a future Justice Ministry should be gifted to the Alliance Party. If that is the outcome it will be proof positive about who is running the country and whose party interests are being advantaged.

The Ulster Unionists are thought to be cool on the idea too, and for similar reasons to those laid out by David Ford. In the end the capacity to solve this deal and approve it’s final outline lies with the DUP and Sinn Fein and one willing other. It looks like they may have found that willing victim volunteer in the SDLP.

Although, having taken flak over almost every single micro move or decision on the part of their Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie from the benches of Sinn Fein, the party must be doing so in the realisation that every slight mistake, misspoken word and every crisis in policing will be resolutely laid at their door. And if past experience is anything to go by the claims that they are simply doing the heavy lifting will not go down terribly well when they are getting the blame for every micro crime that happens on their watch.

At base this is a concern about several things. One, the party has been consistently in favour of the devolution Policing and Justice, so it might be viewed as a reversal of that strategy to refuse the opportunity of facilitating it now. Two the wily nilly abandonment of d’Hondt for cross community consent. Once that principle has been accepted it augments the already considerable powers of control invested in the joint office of OFMDFM since Sinn Fein and the DUP alone control that vote in the Assembly. And, three, it is extremely uncomfortable as the only party on the Executive with only one Minister.

Only time will tell whether or not the SDLP will either profit or suffer from it’s pitch for a possible new Minister. But given we know nothing at this stage of any time line, we could be on the edges of our seats waiting for the denouement of this little story for some time to come.

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