With less than a hundred days to go before the general election, the SDLP are to be congratulated for breaking free of Sinn Fein me-too-ism to vote in favour of terms which permit the National Crime Agency to operate fully in Northern Ireland. A clap on the back too for David Ford for bringing long negotiations to a successful outcome . To the outsider admittedly not in full command of the details, the final local accountability arrangements seem little different from what was suggested in the first place. No matter. The 60 plus per cent of MLAs voting in favour shows what even an issue requiring a simple majority can achieve. It left Sinn Fein isolated and looking down at their feet muttering. The NCA now joins MI5 with a national security remit which has overcome narrowly political objections to function here.It also gives an answer to those who like to claim that the SDLP has no role. With several points less than the 40% needed to reach the quota to make up a weighted majority in the nationalist bloc, they should hang on in there and start differentiating from Sinn Fein as constructively and as often as possible. The reflex from the Bel Tel is to assume the SDLP has given ammunition to Sinn Fein. We’ll how Sinn Fein pitch it as they continue piously to insist they’re a law and order party. Except where the Brits are involved?
Following months of detailed negotiations led by Justice Minister David Ford, the NCA will be subject to the same code of ethics that applies to the PSNI.
In addition, the NCA’s director general, Keith Bristow, will be accountable to the Policing Board in relation to NI issues, but not non-devolved matters such as customs.
SDLP deputy leader Dolores Kelly told MLAs: “We are pleased with the level of accountability that we have achieved. It is a day when the SDLP is again giving leadership on policing on the basis of what is right.
A legislative order will now go through Westminster in the next few weeks allowing the NCA to begin operations here around the time of the election in May.
However in a statement, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly said the SDLP has “jumped too early in a negotiation to create robust accountability mechanisms”.
He accused the SDLP over undermining the Good Friday Agreement.
But Secretary of State Theresa Villiers said she was “delighted” that MLAs had voted to allow the NCA to operate in Northern Ireland.
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