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The deal: How Northern Ireland's systems of policing and justice will change

By Deborah McAleese

After years of political stand-offs and squabbling, at the stroke of a pen, policing and justice in Northern Ireland is finally to be handed over from Westminster.

But what are the main areas of policing and justice — and what changes will there be?

Policing: Unlikely to bring much change to police accountability, as the PSNI is already accountable to the Northern Ireland Policing Board. Police here already have similar powers to officers in England and Wales. Police funding, which is provided by the Secretary of State to the Policing Board, will become the responsibility of the Justice Minister, who will set police pay and conditions as well as making regulations providing for pensions. The Policing Board’s powers will not be diminished but funding will now be allocated from the Northern Ireland block grant.

Criminal law: A key part of the work will be creating and maintaining the criminal law in Northern Ireland through legislating for the creation of offences and related court procedures such as bail, proceeds of crime, road traffic offences, sexual crime. To include development of criminal justice policy in areas like sentencing and restorative justice and services for crime victims.

Public Prosecution Service: The post of Attorney General for Northern Ireland will be created and the appointment made by the First and Deputy First Ministers. It has been speculated the post will be filled by Catholic human rights barrister John Larkin QC. The Attorney General will appoint the Director and Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions. The director will not have to answer to the Assembly except in relation to finance and administration. The current Attorney General has a number of functions to Northern Ireland which will not be devolved. These include national security. A new office of Advocate General for Northern Ireland will take on responsibility for any of the current Attorney General’s functions which are not devolved to the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland or to the Attorney General for Northern Ireland. This role will be fulfilled by the same Attorney General for England and Wales.

The courts: The Lord Chancellor is responsible for running Northern Ireland courts and on devolution his responsibilities transfer to the new Justice Minister and the court service will become an executive agency of the Department of Justice. Among the Justice Minister’s responsibilities will be legal aid policy and funding, rights to appeal to the House of Lords and administrative support to the Child Support Commissioners.

Prisons and treatment of offenders: The Northern Ireland Prison Service is an executive agency of the NIO under the control of the Secretary of State. The Prison Service will now become an agency of the Department of Justice. The Probation Board for Northern Ireland will be transferred to the Department of Justice and its board and members will be accountable to the Justice Minister. The Youth Justice Agency will become an agency of the Department of Justice. The new Justice Minister will become responsible for the oversight of the Life Sentence Review commissioners who are responsible for life sentence prisoners and considering them for release.

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Key points that were dealt with in new Hillsborough Agreement

The 21-page Hillsborough Agreement sets out plans for devolving policing and justice powers, dealing with contentious loyal order parades and resolving outstanding |issues facing the Executive.

Key points include:

DEVOLUTION

  • Powers to be devolved on April 12, following the formal passing of a resolution in the Assembly on March 9.
  • The First Minister and Deputy First Minister will consider applications for the new Justice Minister on Monday. With neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein to nominate candidates, the leader of the non-aligned Alliance Party David Ford is tipped for the role, to be decided by cross-community vote in the Assembly.
  • While the new minister will have the same status as all other ministers in the power-sharing Cabinet, he or she will have the ability to take certain urgent decisions without recourse to colleagues.

PARADING

  • A six-member working group, appointed by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, will formulate a framework for new parade management procedures.
  • Its work will place emphasis on allowing local people to find solutions to local parading problems, with the rights of marchers and residents taken into account.
  • In instances when accommodation cannot be found, it is envisaged that an adjudication panel made up of lay and legal representatives will rule.
  • The Executive will transfer responsibilities for parading legislation from Westminster and table a new Bill based on the group's proposals.
  • The current Parades Commission will continue to |adjudicate on contentious marches until the new framework comes into operation — expected at the end of 2010.

OTHER ISSUES

  • An Executive working group will be set up to examine ways to improve the operation of the Cabinet. It is intended this will be co-chaired by Ulster Unionist leader and Employment Minister Sir Reg Empey and SDLP Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie.
  • DUP and Sinn Fein junior ministers Robin Newton and Gerry Kelly will chair another Executive working group to progress issues the Cabinet has so far failed to agree on. These include the stalled shake-up and restructuring of the education system.
  • The First Minister and Deputy First Minister will conduct an exercise to address matters still outstanding from the 2006 St Andrews Agreement. These include legislative measures to protect the rights of Irish language speakers.

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