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For Big Two to share Justice Ministry brief would be major step forward in our politics

The DUP and Sinn Fein work together - largely harmoniously - on the justice committee. Why can't they do the same in its ministry, asks Alban Maginness

Published 25/05/2016

Sinn Fein's Raymond McCartney
Sinn Fein's Raymond McCartney

I personally like Claire Sugden and am very pleased that she was elected back into the Assembly. She is a courageous and articulate young Assembly Member and an assiduous constituency representative. She is a genuine independent unionist and, in that respect, irrespective of criticism from other unionists, added a significant independent voice to the work of the last Assembly.

But, despite my admiration for her, I do not think that she is suitable for the position of Justice Minister, as I do not believe that she has the political experience, nor more importantly the political clout, necessary for her to take on that contentious role.

But, even if I thought that she had the necessary political credentials and experience, I think that it is now time that the new DUP/Sinn Fein Executive-in-waiting steps up to the plate and jointly takes on the collective responsibility of the Department of Justice.

If the new administration is to have real credibility then it must not duck the issue of appointing a Justice Minister from within its own ranks and not exploit a good person such as Claire Sugden to bail them out of a hole.

The last time the Alliance Party came to the rescue by accepting the role and, in doing so, distorted the balance of the Executive, taking two departments, while the SDLP and the UUP had only one department each - even though each of them had more votes than Alliance.

It now seems clear, although no one can be absolutely certain, that Alliance will no longer participate in an Executive that does not contain either UUP or SDLP. It would appear that John McCallister's dream of Opposition has now become a reality, and Sinn Fein and the DUP will be totally on their own in government.

As Seamus Close warned last week, it would be extremely difficult for Alliance to accept the Justice post and be seen to bolster the two big parties. Alliance would be lacking in credibility if, at this point, it went back from its principled position on reforms to the petition of concern and entered the Executive. It would appear as if it had only been posturing in order to get a plum job.

So, now is the moment of truth for Martin and Arlene and they must urgently reach a decision as to who is to become the new Minister for Justice. It is a critical office in any government, and an agreement on it must be reached to provide the necessary stability for their administration and to avoid another immediate election, which nobody in politics wants.

The withdrawal of all the other parties means that they are on their own and that they must reach agreement themselves alone. If they can - and I believe that they can - then it will represent a step forward for our politics. To share responsibility for law and order in any society is critical to stability and cohesion, as it is so central to the art of government.

The question is: how can it be done? I believe that it can be achieved through the appointment of a DUP minister at first instance, with the appointment, alongside that minister, of a super junior minister from Sinn Fein. DUP supporters will not like a Sinn Fein junior minister, but neither will Sinn Fein supporters like a DUP minister.

Whether they will agree to swap roles halfway through the mandate is another question, but remember: the DUP did it - albeit reluctantly and gracelessly - with the Speaker's position in the last Assembly. To my mind this is the only accommodation that could satisfy both parties at this crucial juncture. Plainly, it would be the least disagreeable solution to the problem from both parties' point of view. There are, of course, interesting and suitable candidates in both parties that could fill the role of Justice Minister. On the DUP side there is Alastair Ross, who distinguished himself as an energetic, impartial and innovative chair of the justice committee in the last mandate. He has built up good relations with many justice stakeholders, including the judiciary and the legal profession.

Equally, the deputy chair of the committee, Sinn Fein's Raymond McCartney, made a very significant contribution to the good and constructive work of that committee over a wide range of issues, including the Prison Service, legal aid, sentencing issues and budgetary matters, such as the controversial closure of courthouses throughout Northern Ireland.

Despite the difficulties that many of these issues raised, it has to be said that the committee's work was carried out on a largely nonpartisan basis.

If that could happen in the committee, then surely it could happen within a department, if power-sharing government is to be meaningful?

Belfast Telegraph

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