As BBC NI political editor Mark Devenport reminds us, one of the oddities of our current ‘indigenous’ arrangements is that we can be fairly sure of one outcome of this election for the Alliance Party.
Yesterday, on Inside Politics, I presented the first in a series of special election programmes. The Alliance leader David Ford denied that his party had been unprincipled in taking the Justice department after spending the first half of the Assembly mandate portraying themselves as Stormont’s only opposition. Mr Ford insisted that Alliance was making a real difference not just to Justice but to how the Executive conducts its business in general.
Mr Ford’s tenure at Justice (assuming he is reappointed on the other side of the election) is scheduled to come to an end in May 2012, when the sunset clause negotiated at Hillsborough comes into effect. If there’s no agreement on renewing the cross community appointment, or agreeing to put the department on the same footing as the others, then the Justice Ministry is set to be dissolved.
The Alliance leader can’t see any better alternative than the current compromise. He acknowledged that “we have a history in Northern Ireland that we always manage to have a little bit of a crisis over this” but played down the prospects of a repeat of the Hillsborough talks as May 2012 looms.
Well, we’ll see… Here’s what the legislation has to say about 1 May 2012
8(1)The department dissolves on 1 May 2012 unless, before 1 May 2012—
(a)the Assembly resolves that the department is to continue operating from 1 May 2012, or
(b)a second Act of the Assembly (“the second Act”) makes provision authorised by sub-paragraph (3).
(2)A resolution for the purposes of sub-paragraph (1)(a) must be passed with cross-community support (as defined in section 4(5) of the 1998 Act).
(3)The second Act may provide that the department is to continue operating from 1 May 2012.
(4)The second Act may repeal the initial ministerial provision with effect from a specified date.
(5)If the second Act repeals the initial ministerial provision, it may also—
(a)replace the initial ministerial provision with provision of the kind mentioned in section 21A(3), (4), (5) or (5A) of the 1998 Act with effect from the specified date (and the relevant provisions of Schedule 4A to the 1998 Act apply), or
(b)provide for the department to be in the charge of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister acting jointly with effect from the specified date (and section 21(3)(a) and (b) of the 1998 Act apply);
and if no provision is made within paragraph (a) or (b), the Ministerial office of the Minister in charge of the department is to be filled under section 18 of the 1998 Act.
(6)If the second Act repeals the initial ministerial provision, a determination under section 17(1) of the 1998 Act must be made on the specified date.
(7)That determination takes effect immediately (and, accordingly, section 17(5) of the 1998 Act does not apply in relation to it).
(8)If the second Act replaces the initial ministerial provision with provision of the kind mentioned in section 21A(5A) of the 1998 Act, paragraph 11E(1) of Schedule 4A to the 1998 Act applies as if devolved policing and justice functions were first transferred to, or conferred on, the department when the determination required by sub-paragraph (6) takes effect in accordance with sub-paragraph (7).
(9)Nothing in this paragraph stops an Act of the Assembly dissolving the department at any time.
From that, the options available to the Assembly would seem to be (1) continue with the current system of cross-community vote to appoint a NI Justice Minister, (2) replace the current system with an agreed system of appointing a NI Justice Minister(s) [various options available, default system D’Hondt], (3) “provide for the department to be in the charge of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister acting jointly” [added emphasis].
But the NI Assembly must choose one of those options by 1 May 2012. And if they wish to continue with the current system it has to be on the basis of a cross-community vote.
Otherwise the NI Justice department will be dissolved.
And, perhaps, the Alliance Party will come up with a new precondition by then…