The dissident threat and the Newtownabbey riots prompts me to ask: what impact is David Ford making as Minister of Justice? The conclusion would seem to be a modest one, compared to the massive controversy over devolving the justice and policing functions. I can’t help feeling that big issues are being ducked: viz:
- Are the PSNI in shape to deal with the dissidents, UVF left-overs and the legacies of paramilitarism generally?
- Is an agreement in sight for dealing with the past?
- When if ever will something else replace the Parades Commission, still not devolved?
- What will replace the International Monitoring Group which is likely to be stood down soon, along with the de Chastelain decommissioning commission?
Any omissions are much less Ford’s fault than the built-in constraints of the job itself. The big issues are bound to be for the Executive as a whole, in particular the two leading parties who cancelled themselves out for the job. Politically he is a quasi-neutral figure between the blocs, conducting a holding operation. The role of any justice minister was always going to limited whoever held it, as some of us observed when the hue and cry over devolving J&P powers was at its height.
The minister cannot directly influence the response to that threat as MI5 is responsible for gathering intelligence on dissidents and the chief constable is operationally independent. What he can do is lend his support to calls for greater funding and resources.
The goals have been brigaded under five broad themes; reducing offending and dealing with its consequences; building safer communities; increasing access to justice; supporting justice in a shared future and resourcing and supporting delivery across the justice system
(When a word like ” brigaded” passes into the public domain, you know the civil service is in charge).
Ford’s main task so far has been the bureaucratic if important one of introducing the Justice Bill to implement reforms mostly trailed and specified already.
As well as the offender levy proposal, the Bill proposes the issuing of fixed penalties fines for a range of offences and the creation of new Policing and Community Safety Partnerships to help tackle crime at a local level.
Although it’s early days, it would help to know more about the expected outcomes of these reforms. Were complaints about too lenient sentences reasonable or not? Did the former District Policing Partnerships fade away due to indifference or background intimidation and will their replacements perform any better? The conclusions could be crucial in focusing public support for combating new paramilitary and gangland threats.
David Ford’s neutrality between the blocs is accepted but has he been effectively neutered as well? Is that the price to be paid for taking the job? What will be the Justice Department’s destiny after the May elections, Ford Mark 2 or something completely different? In this age of austerity, does it still make sense to keep on a Policing Board with its minority lay element, when a new department exists, accountable to the Assembly?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London