A series of steps leading to the devolution of policing and justice powers was unveiled today.
The DUP-Sinn Fein agreement paves the way for the first Executive meeting in five months to take place this Thursday, after mounting and prolonged criticism across Northern Ireland society.
Under today’s agreement, the Assembly Committee dealing with the nuts and bolts of the transfer of policing and justice would ideally complete their work by January — including how the implementation will be financed and the ways in which the new Department of Justice will function.
Senior QC John Larkin — a professor of criminology and a Catholic who was born in west Belfast — would become Northern Ireland’s new Attorney General. He has represented the DUP in several cases.
The Justice Minister would — until May of 2012 — be elected under a cross-community vote in the Assembly requiring a majority of nationalists and unionists.
But the agreement also includes a sunset clause, involving a review of the arrangements to put a more permanent system in place. It would be unlikely that a Sinn Fein MLA could become Justice Minister until that date at the earliest.
Mr Robinson said he believed the agreement represented: “A very satisfactory resolution” of the most difficult issues which had been raised publically as concerns.
“We believe these agreements are capable of gaining the confidence of the community” he added.
Mr McMcGuinness said: “We believe the outworking of the agreements we have reached will allow the uninterrupted functioning of the Executive.”
On Thursday the first draft of a paper on financial hardship issues is to tabled.
A letter from First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness set out a sequence leading towards the spring of next year.
It included a number of annexes which included the sequence of action areas and a process involving legislation going through the Assembly.
Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness briefed the committee at Stormont this morning before making their letter public, clearing the way for the first meeting of the power-sharing Executive in five months this Thursday.
Mr Robinson said he and Mr McGuinness envisaged the devolution of powers taking place without due delay. The Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister added the agenda Thursday’s Executive meeting will be dominated by plans to tackle economic hardship.
The Assembly heard yesterday that around 60 papers are in a queue to be dealt with by Ministers at an Executive, including the abolition of prescription charges.
The meeting on Thursday is likely to agree a package of ‘feel-good’ measures, including a fuel poverty plan and a possible boost for the ailing construction industry.
The DUP leader and senior Sinn Fein negotiator have held a range of meetings with various sectors — including business and financial services chiefs, community leaders and civic society — and heard one consistent message: “the Executive must get back to business”.
Nonetheless, other issues which have led to government gridlock for 152 days — academic selection and school transfer, the future of the Maze national stadium, Irish language and rural planning — were not dealt with today.
In some cases, particularly in relation to the thorny area of the 11-plus, agreement still seems some considerable way off.
There had been speculation the entire issue could form part of a further review also including curriculum issues and the schools estate, with a shrinking pupil population.
The SDLP’s Alex Attwood, a member of the Executive, said there was now an opportunity to get a number of crucial questions dealt with.