If it lives up to the debate, the Assembly will have saved itself and made history

With the vital passage of the motion this evening to transfer Justice powers from Westminster and new moves afoot to improve the workings of power sharing towards creating a shared future, the Assembly has taken its boldest steps towards creating political stability since the St Andrews Agreement in 2006. The motion was passed by a parallel consent majority of 88% overall, the unionist majority being 67%.

In the long debate stretching throughout the day, highmindedness was not always maintained. But all in all the Assembly rose to the occasion , although plenty of problems lurk just below the surface. The Ulster Unionists were cast as useful idiots, the butt of other people’s criticisms, being taunted with David Cameron’s pleas to agree , Sylvia Hermon’s alleged support for the transfer and reports of Ulster Unionist members murmuring in the corridors against their own leadership. The UU stance seems to have had the beneficial effect of quelling any remaining qualms among the “ united “ ranks of the DUP. Their case against transfer at this juncture was swept aside in a wind up speech from Peter Robinson which reasserted his leadership of the DUP and indeed of the Assembly itself. He summed up his own position by giving himself a pat on the back at the expense of a very subdued Sir Reg Empey:.

Northern Ireland doesn’t need leaders who dither and dally but leaders who can stretch the imagination.

The baleful focus of Mr Robinson’s attention was the Ulster Unionist minister Michael McGimpsey who had earlier told members:

We are here due to Sinn Fein blackmail… I understand the anxiety of the DUP when it comes to facing the electorate. In side deals there is something about the Irish language, an Irish civic forum and an all-Ireland parliamentary forum and on-the-runs – what Gerry Adams calls a staging post… If a Justice minister needs to call in the Army, where will SF stand then?” And – where is Nigel Dodds?

This you have to admit, was quite a good question. But with an eye to his own voters, Mr Robinson set about Mr McGimpsey whom he bracketed with the the absent non-member and DUP apostate Jim Allister.

I support (the transfer) on the basis of the DUP manifesto of 2007, co-authored , voted for and campaigned on by Jim Allister

Mr Allister’s reference on the radio to the 2012 hurdle could not be disposed of quite so easily. Mr Robinson admitted that under D’Hondt, Sinn Fein could have chance of gaining Justice if they become the largest party ” but they will not become the largest party after the next election.” Clearly that’s a problem deferrred. It was easier to scorn Mr McGimpsey’s claim that SF would oppose any move to call in the Army to deal with the dissident threat.

“Paragraph 2 of the National Security Protocol. Any request for military assistance is a matter for the Chief Constable who has operational responsibility and is independent. I hope that kills off this Ulster Unionist nonsense”

Declaring that claims of side deals were “claptrap” he asked

“ where do they get this nonsense? It is all complete trash.”

Contrary to the claims of Sir Reg and Margaret Ritchie who led it, the First minister praised the achievements of the working group on improving the functioning of the Assembly, even though they had last night turned down an FMDFM offer not to oppose bringing to the Executive any measure supported by three ministers.

“ But I make the offer again.”

The pledge of a more open approach to the operation of the four party coalition suggests that Ulster Unionist and SDLP complaints are about to be taken on board, notwithstanding Mr Robinson’s harsh words about the Ulster Unionists this afternoon. Hopes will be raised that the UUs will soon be able to climb down from the uncomfortable hook on which they have impaled themselves. This and the imminent publication of the Robinson/McGuinness version of the CSI document together with the passage of the Devolution of Justice motion appears to set the Assembly on a far more positive course – with the caveat that nearly all the details have yet to be worked out.

On the transfer of Justice powers, a lot of devil will be in the detail. For instance SF’s Martina Anderson breathed fire against MI5

(“malignant, poisonous; some parties want to make them part of policing and then blame us for rejecting it “)

Now what party would that be? Surely not SF’s sturdy partner?

In an impressive display of his credentials, the SDLP’s thwarted Justice minister Alban Maginness laid out a full programme for the Justice Ministry that was so long he hadn’t finished it by the time his five minutes were up. The list contained a charter of rights for victims, prisons ombudsman, reform of the prison service, a new women’s facility and a new prison, new accountability for the PPS, a criminal law reform forum and reform of legal aid. He would have no trouble spending the full £1.3 billion, even before we pay for all those police officers with damaged hearing

In a thoughtful and notably non partisan contribution based on her grassroots experience of a multi-agency approach to the problems of North Belfast, SF’s Cara Ni Cuilin declared that great strides had been made towards ending criminality but that “gaps remained that will be plugged today.” If SF proceeds along these lines the outlook will surely be encouraging.

Late in the day Sir Reg Empey rose suddenly to treat members to a milder version of the McGimpsey speech so savaged by Peter Robinson . He was heard in silence as he read out woodenly from a text. Inevitably he approved of the devolution of P&J, but not to this lot.

“ We do not believe in transferring justice powers to parties that cannot agree on the transfer of children from primary to secondary schools… Th leaders have not had a single discussion about the dissident threat .or what to do when inevitable problems arise.”

The SDLP’s other champion of detail Alex Attwood derided Martin McGuinsess for professing joint working and erring on the side transparency.

“ It is not joint working to exclude the SDLP.. and to do deals over the heads of the community on a shared future and parading.. Let’s see the documents!”

In fact Margaret Ritchie had told the Assembly during Questions earlier that the CSI document will be published on Thursday.

Towards the end of the debate the DUP’s Edwin Poots threw in a squib nobody seemed to notice.

“ We’re getting rid of 50:50 (police ) recruitment at the end of the year.”

Has he shared this with anybody else?