Ulster Unionist peer Lord Maginnis of Drumglass argues crass demands or concessions cannot be allowed to dictate the devolution of policing and justice
Could there be a better time, as Northern Ireland's MLAs return from their first major recess, to try to evaluate the first 15 months of devolution — its successes, its failures and its booby-trapped future? One has to forget the message brought back to us by the DUP from St Andrews, and evaluate matters as they have actually emerged.
Firstly, there was no great treasure chest that (wink, wink! nod, nod!) we were encouraged to believe was on its way to resolve the water charges problems — in fact the DUP appears to have been sold the same cow twice since the expected bonanza was already in the bank under Direct Rule.
Secondly, the future of our education system — a success of the old Stormont in 1948 — was not, as we were promised, secured against the dogma of the extreme left in Sinn Fein. Did the DUP already know this when they ceded the education portfolio to Ms Ruane?
Herein is one of the greatest dangers to Northern Ireland, with 60 years of universal education plunged into potential chaos and with 400 years of tradition that makes us the most successful region in the United Kingdom when it comes to achieving third level entry coming under attack.
The list would be too long if one proceeded step-by-step through all the inefficiency and untapped opportunities of the last year. A lack of decision-making on water charges doesn't mean the issue has been resolved; a sports stadium decision is still awaited; however “minded” ministers may be on issues such as planning, the PPS14 matter is still in limbo and farmers find themselves disadvantaged once again.
New (and old) roads continue to flood but, rather than up-front decision making, we're promised an inquiry rather than action. Will a committee of experts behind closed doors make greater progress than our own highly qualified engineers sitting around a table with the minister? Realise this, Minister — those who are, once again, flooded out of their homes could have had a second hand, quango-type decision under Direct Rule — they deserve better now.
But if we really want to add insult to injury then we've only to look at the blatant threat by Sinn Féin's Caoimhghín O'Caolain that his party will pull ministers out of Government if “policing and justice powers are not devolved to Stormont as promised”. The First Minister didn't tell us about that promise so one must ask, “Did he come away from St Andrews without knowing what went on? Where now stands ‘the Fair Deal'?”
It is timely that the editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette, Canon Ian Ellis, writes: “In the current circumstances, I believe there should be a real and open public consultation on whether or not the people of Northern Ireland generally do indeed have adequate confidence in the Stormont administration for the devolution of justice and policing to proceed.”
While I am both a devolutionist and a pragmatic politician I totally agree with the Canon Ellis when he writes: “What appears to happen is that decisions are very often taken on what effectively is a system of ‘trade-off of demands' between the political parties, as opposed to focusing on the real merits in particular issues. Indeed, that becomes all the more questionable when it comes to any de facto ‘trade-off of demands' system of decision making. What ‘trade-offs' might there be when it comes to public prosecutions or policing or the running of prisons?”
Policing and justice, it has been argued since 1972, is a civil matter and should not be a political football.
Would Sinn Fein now wish it to be otherwise, or is it merely a matter of extracting another concession from the DUP?
There is no doubt Sinn Fein succeeded with their pressure tactics when it came to the “Foster super-council” issue. Few could believe, by any stretch of the imagination, that it was “Getting It Right” to turn Fermanagh and West Tyrone into a “Little Donegal” on the periphery of Northern Ireland and isolated from the centre of economic and administrative activity. All the residents in this area will, inevitably, lose out as the ‘rim of the wheel' gets worn down first.
What we will need during 2008/09 is for the Assembly and ministers take a leaf out of Michael McGimpsey's book.
In a Department traditionally rife with problems he has clearly said: “I owe it to the people of Northern Ireland to see that Health, in all its component parts, is delivered effectively and efficiently. It's my responsibility and I'll stand or fall by it.” That's why he discarded a Direct Rule blueprint to create a multi-layered committee system involving up to 2,500 staff external to the department and with the top ten officials costing more than £1 million.
He now has the job done by little more than an eighth of the proposed number of staff, all working inside the department and ultimately answerable to him.
Hence, coming back to devolution of policing and justice, the matter is one that requires more thought, a greater endeavour to establish public confidence and, vitally, a competent leadership within its component elements. Crass or bullish political demands, or self-perpetuating concessions, cannot be allowed to dictate to the very soul of society.