A bill paving the way for devolution of policing and criminal justice completed its passage through the Commons in just one day.
Secretary of State Shaun Woodward said the Northern Ireland bill, which sets out the ninth model for a justice ministry, was part of Northern Ireland’s political destiny and an “essential stepping stone to the completion of devolution”.
SDLP leader Mark Durkan, however, was a little more sceptical, claiming Northern Ireland has had “more vacuous models than Hugh Hefner”.
He pointed out the Bill failed to set any date for an appointment to the role after devolution or an election, which would led to a “zombie” department that existed but could not act.
And on the agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein to suspend the D’Hondt provisions for the justice minister, the Foyle MP said: “What we have here is legislation which allows for gerrymandering in Northern Ireland 2009.”
The Bill only puts in place the framework to progress towards the transfer of police and justice powers when the Assembly agrees to the final stages of devolution.
DUP leader Peter Robinson insisted that would not happen until all of his party’s conditions had been met.
Under the proposals the Assembly will need to reach agreement on future arrangements for ministerial oversight of the Justice Department before May 1, 2012, or the department will automatically be dissolved.
It also makes the position of DPP completely independent, sparking concerns from the Conservatives that such a key role would not be answerable to elected representatives.
Shadow Northern Ireland minister Laurence Robertson expressed concern over a number of issues including the lack of a “fallback” if the Assembly could not reach an agreement before the sunset clause kicks in.
But minister Paul Goggins said it was important that central Government did not have a “major hand” in determining the model for the department beyond 2012.
He said: “There is no fallback position. This is a matter now entirely for the Assembly to continue with.”
The Bill now passes to the House of Lords where it has been given two days in the parliamentary timetable for consideration.