Devolution of policing and justice: where were we again?

Devolution of politicking policing with and justice is all the rage again. At least on the editorial and op ed pages of the Belfast Telegraph. The position of the parties appears to be this: one party (Sinn Fein) wants it now. Another party (the SDLP) apparently wants it now, but seems capable of little other than pouring scorn on the first party (Sinn Fein) for not being able to get it now. Two other parties (the UUP and the DUP) say they want it, but like St Augustine and the virtuous life, not just yet.

The tiny Alliance (the ones likely to bag to new job since no one else can be tolerated to hold it, by the semi detached polit bureau at least), are ready to go once they’re happy the transfer of powers from various departmental pots come into one, won’t break their political bank in the first year of operation. One rising party (TUV) is agin it, until the whole system of mandatory coalition is lifted from the oppressed people of Ulster. Martin McGuiness says it doesn’t matter what the UUP says, only their polit bureau partners in OFMdFM count. And the NIO (which has no local democratic mandate of its own) agrees. Fionnuala O’Connor restates the Sinn Fein deputy First Minister’s belief that:

Sinn Féin went into powersharing with Ian Paisley on the understanding that taking the IRA out of commission would enable sharing power over policing. As acknowledged in an editorial yesterday by the Belfast Telegraph, the voice of middle unionist Ulster, which commended the argument for devolution by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness as “compelling”, Sinn Féin kept its side of the bargain.

It’s understood that Mr McGuinness still keeps in touch with his old ‘chuckling buddy’ Dr Paisley. But the truth is that neither of them actually did anything in that first legislative year they had together to enact any new law. And under the St Andrews’ Agreement, total agreement is required between the factions of OFMdFM before anything can be done. Their party’s continue to do nothing in lieu of the DUP signing an Augustinian compact to be ‘good’ and agree to draw down a second tranche of powers before any of the first tranche have been substantially used.

The DUP insists that filling the deficit in public confidence is the necessary pre-requisite for dropping down powers into a new department that has no direct NIO-managed shadow presence. Whilst some point to the convincing fist made by the dFM after the Massereene Barracks attack earlier in the year; there is nevertheless a lag in general public confidence in a Legislative Assembly that in two and a half years has failed to legislate anything substantially new.

By the same token the Sinn Fein leadership will not allow their dFM to get on with taking up what responsibilities he already has without a cast iron (ie public) guarantee from the DUP that the devolution of policing and justice will take place in a given space of time. Like the Penrose Stairs we have the illusion of progress when in actual fact what we are witnessing here is an endlessly circular motion with neither showing the breadth vision or political courage to break out of it.

The Belfast Telegraph takes the view that:

It would now make sense for him [the new Chief Constable] to be able to work with those same politicians in a framework devised at local level. Nationalist and unionist politicians serve on the Policing Board; they sit on lower level district policing partnerships; it is high time they took executive decisions about policing and justice.

Which fine as far as it goes. But it also ignores the rather obese elephant in the room of an Executive that, despite its high levels of economic inactivity, has managed to cause widespread chaos in schools, and been hauled before a judicial review alongside one its number, the Minister for Social Development Margaret Ritchie.

Confidence is a two way street. If Northern Ireland’s politicians want to claim public confidence, perhaps it is about time they did something (anything?) to earn it!! And perhaps the media might quit feather bedding them and let them hear the honest truth for once.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty