Ford prepares for justice role as UUP and SDLP hit out
Today's historic Assembly appointment of the first Justice Minister for Northern Ireland in almost 40 years last night came under fierce attack from Ulster Unionists and the SDLP.
Policing and justice powers formally returned to Stormont at midnight, almost four decades after they were seized from local control by then Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath.
A combination of DUP and Sinn Fein votes this afternoon is expected to see Alliance leader David Ford take over the justice portfolio, after years of political wrangling.
Mr Ford could still face a challenge, however, from senior SDLP member and barrister Alban Maginness, who Ulster Unionists have signalled they would be prepared to support. The UU Assembly team meets this morning to finalise its strategy.
Mr Ford has a sizeable in-tray awaiting him with the unenviable task of balancing mounting public disquiet about sentencing policy with growing pressure on the province’s prison estate.
The multi-million legal aid bill facing the Court Service will also be at the top of the to-do list for the 59-year-old father of four.
While he is widely expected to take the job, chief Ulster Unionist whip Fred Cobain insisted the “Alliance Party has no democratic mandate and the virtual crowning of David Ford in a cross community vote is a perversion of the mandate given to all political parties in the Good Friday Agreement”.
Under the same mechanism by which other Stormont Ministers were appointed — the controversial d’Hondt procedure — the post would fall to the SDLP who, like the UUP, would then have two seats at the Executive.
SDLP policing spokesman Alex Attwood said: “The devolution of policing and justice will leave a sour taste. Nationalists struggled for years to create equality and achieved it in the Good Friday Agreement but will be denied their entitlement to a seat in government.”
Alliance chief whip Stephen Farry argued, however, the transfer offers the Assembly the chance of a fresh start and backing from the two major parties will give the Minister greater legitimacy.
And First Minister Peter Robinson accused the UUP of playing political games and argued the move will push the province forward enabling quicker action over public concerns on crime.