There has been a great amount of ink spilt in explaining the advantages and indeed the necessity of devolving policing and justice to the assembly and it seems that slowly but surely the DUP are moving towards it, though in the last couple of days I have begum to wonder; something I will return to at the end. There are arguments in favour of P&J devolution: however, there are also arguments against it both as a practical concept and also specific arguments against the DUP accepting it.Shaun Woodward has repeatedly referred to P&J devolution as somehow completing devolution. This is of course a specious comment. P&J is a devolved matter in Scotland but not in Wales. Scotland unlike Wales, England or Northern Ireland has a separate justice system in both civil and criminal law. As such to have devolution in Scotland but not to include P&J would be a complete nonsense; it would require a justice minister for Scotland to sit in Westminster whilst the other Scottish ministers sat in Holyrood. Wales of course has no separate justice ministry and since its legal system is the same as England’s it has no need of a policing and justice minister. Despite this there is no suggestion that Welsh devolution is somehow incomplete. Northern Ireland shares the English and Welsh justice system and hence, unlike in Scotland, there is no need for a policing and justice minister. Northern Ireland is in this context the same as Wales and different from Scotland: to claim that Northern Ireland’s devolution is incomplete whilst saying that Wales’s is complete is a logical nonsense.
One of the arguments proffered for P&J devolution is that it would make the police more locally accountable. However, we already have local policing partnerships and the operational control of policing has been specifically excluded from a putative devolved minister. As such the suggestion made that devolution will make the PSNI into a more effective local community force seems extremely unlikely. In addition Matt Baggott has already dismissed the calls by the likes of Jeffrey Donaldson to keep the full time reserve. It seems quite clear that Baggott intends to peruse his own agenda, as illustrated by the dismissal of Donaldson and in addition certain operational decisions such as the insistence on not using army transport to take police officers to the scene of the Forkhill bomb. A police commander who seems unwilling to allow the safety of his officers to override his own agenda is hardly an individual who can be expected to accept any form of advice from local politicians. Of course if by chance Baggott was willing to listen to politicians he would then also have to listen to republicans as well as unionists which would make unionists pause before advocating increased political involvement in operational decisions.
Turning to the political timing of P&J devolution the DUP would be most foolish to devolve now. The DUP has just passed a low ebb: the Iris Robinson affair rocked them quite significantly. However, although Peter Robinson was damaged and for a time it looked as if he might flounder, he now seems to be becoming more secure. The public mood often bounces back and it looks as if Peter Robinson is gaining increasing sympathy. Clearly further revelations of any impropriety on his part would damage him severely (probably fatally) but at the moment he looks, as at the beginning of the crisis, more a man wronged than one who committed wrong. Many in the mainstream media fail to understand the unionist electorate but it looks increasing like Robinson is on his way back up.
Despite the above unionist confidence has suffered a knock over the Iris affair: the DUP which seemed to have the match of Sinn Fein in Stormont was shown to have at least one foot made of clay. At the moment if the DUP accept P&J it will be seen in the context of Robinson’s and the DUP’s still relative weakness. A deal done in weakness will almost certainly be seen as a defeat for unionism, the more so because of the way in which the DUP previously out manoeuvred Sinn Fein time and again over P&J devolution. Whatever the result of any negotiations concessions on parading, personal protection weapons and even the full time reserve will look suspiciously like a fig leaf to cover the DUP’s defeat. Furthermore if the DUP give way over P&J they will be in a much weakened position to resist the next set of republican demands be they on the Irish language Act or the shrine or whatever. If the DUP accept P&J devolution without quite massive concessions from Sinn Fein (something like SF accepting a binding timetable for voluntary coalition), it will appear that the momentum will have shifted decisively in Sinn Feins direction.
Whilst the Iris Robinson affair will still have some currency at election time, it will have begun to wane. However, if the DUP do a deal on P&J, that will almost certainly have a much greater political effect. As such although doing a deal on P&J may buy the DUP some time prior to an election, it will probably make the inevitable Westminster election even more uncomfortable for them. The DUP might well be advised to have the Stormont election now rather than do a deal giving the TUV and UUP two sticks with which to beat them: namely Irisgate and a sell out over P&J. Furthermore a P&J deal would almost certainly result in a further leakage of councillors and possibly most seriously a loss of activists willing to canvass, put up posters etc. in an election year.
To come back to my suggestion that the DUP are not necessarily about to devolve P&J it is just possible that Peter Robinson is spinning out the negotiating process until such time as the assembly election can be swallowed up by the Westminster election. That would allow him to have both elections on the same day which would allow the DUP to resurrect the danger of a Sinn Fein first minister as a realistic bogeyman to maximise the DUP vote, an effect which would then most likely affect both elections. Even better if Robinson could stall the assembly election until after the Westminster elections, it is possible that he could have strengthened his position by demonstrating limited slippage of the DUP vote at Westminster: a chance enhanced by not surrendering on P&J.
All these tactical opportunities have to be considered by Peter Robinson who has bought himself a most useful breathing space, the more useful as Gerry Adams is embroiled in further scandals. Mick suggested a similar thought last week and it is beginning to look possible that he could yet call SFs bluff. If he did he could go into elections in a much stronger position than he is now. The problem is that he has to convince his assembly party to take a risk of them fighting and quite a number receiving their P45s. Robinson just might have the nerve to do it but I am doubtful whether his minions have.