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David Ford: I 'm ready for justice post challenge

By Deborah McAleese

Alliance leader David Ford today indicated that he would be up to the challenge if chosen as the Assembly’s first Minister for Policing and Justice.

While the 59-year-old South Antrim MLA said it would be “extremely foolish” to predict who will be voted into the role on April 12, he felt he could “do the job well”.

Mr Ford said an Alliance politician would be a “fair and impartial” Justice Minister, after the Assembly voted yesterday in favour of the devolution of powers from Westminster to Stormont.

“I am optimistic enough to think I and a number of my colleagues could do the job well,” he said.

Mild-mannered MLA who will now lay down the law

David Ford is a mild-mannered 59-year-old economics graduate with a love for running marathons.

But within one month he is set to take responsibility for funding police in their fight against terrorism, for overcrowded prisons, jail terms for murderers and rapists, the violence on our streets and even the size of our speeding fines.

And he will move from being a low-profile politician to becoming a high-profile target for dissidents.

Today the Alliance Party leader said he was up to the challenge to become the Assembly’s first Minister for Policing and Justice.

While the South Antrim MLA described it as “extremely foolish” to try and predict who will be voted into the role on April 12, he said he felt he could “do the job well”.

Mr Ford made the comments a day after the Assembly voted in favour of devolving policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland.

“I am optimistic enough to think that I could do the job well and that a number of my colleagues could do the job well,” he said. Mr Ford added that an Alliance politician would be a “fair and impartial” Justice Minister.

Mr Ford’s likely candidacy became clear last night after a day of insults in Stormont ended when MLAs voted for the last piece of the devolution jigsaw, policing and justice, to be handed over from Westminster.

But Mr Ford said he had “broad shoulders” to deal with political criticism, which was witnessed during yesterday’s Assembly debate on the issue.

“Both of them the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists were involved in the denigration of us (the Alliance Party),” he said.

“I responded by saying that I was capable of dealing with it. I think anybody who stands for election in the interests of the Alliance Party has to have fairly broad shoulders.”

Speaking about the debate he said: “I think it was a mixture — which was not much more than personal abuse coming from Ulster Unionists to the repetition of the process for appointing the minister from the SDLP,” he said.

As minister, his in-tray is likely to be bulging. Within the next few months a massive remit of criminal justice matters, from funding our police force to deciding which killers can walk free, will land on Mr Ford’s desk.

He will be the man taking control of police funding to tackle the dissident threat and all other areas of crime, from petty vandalism to murder.

The Chief Constable will remain operationally responsible for directing and controlling the police, but it will be up to Mr Ford to decide how much cash he will be handing over to the Chief Constable to carry out his job.

It will also be up to Mr Ford to set police pay and conditions. However, it is likely he will keep it aligned to rates in England and Wales.

In just a few weeks’ time it will be the Alliance leader who has overall control of when killers and rapists walk free from jail.

As Justice Minister he will become responsible for the oversight of the Life Sentence Review commissioners, giving him the final say on when some of the province’s most dangerous offenders who are serving life sentences, like notorious killers Trevor Hamilton and Thomas Purcell, can be released.

The MLA will also be able to issue guidelines on the length of sentences he believes the courts in Northern Ireland should impose for different crimes, from theft to violent offences.

And he will have the power to create new laws to tackle issues of concern such as anti-social behaviour, road traffic offences and knife crime, as well as legislating on court procedures such as bail and sexual crime.

When asked what his priorities would be he admits there was an extensive amount of documentation to consider in relation to the portfolio.

“There are key issues about ensuring the speed of justice about ensuring reforms of some of the aspects of the system and ensuring issues which cut between different departments are addressed in a better way because justices is devolved,” he said.

He can expect some tense meetings with lawyers when he inherits responsibility for legal aid policy and funding, disputes over which almost resulted in an all-out strike by barristers and solicitors last year. Mr Ford will be responsible in deciding how much legal aid is made available for criminal, civil and family cases. It will be up to him to ensure the rehabilitation of offenders by overseeing the work of the Probation Board and the Youth Justice Agency.

There are some areas which will not be devolved. Mr Ford will not have oversight of national security issues. Several criminal justice agencies will continue to be controlled from London, including the Serious Organised Crime Agency, Customs, the Borders Agency and MI5. Extradition matters will be controlled by London.

He couldn’t say when a formal decision on nominations will be made. “The issue has to be discussed by my Assembly Group to make a formal agreement of who our nominations will be. We live in a democracy, the Assembly will vote. 108 MLAs took the decision yesterday as to whether they want justice to be resolved and on April 12 108 MLAs will decide who they want to be minister. I think it would be extremely foolish for anybody to say in advance of that who they think is going to win.”

Last night Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the devolution of policing and justice powers, after a 38-year gap, was “the final end to decades of strife”.

With the responsibility of ensuring the PSNI has enough funds to protect the community and apprehend criminals, that a dangerous life sentence prisoner is not set free to reoffend and that offenders are properly rehabilitated, David Ford can be in no doubt of the tough job that lies ahead.

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