Belfast Telegraph

Monday 14 July 2014

Stormont Executive should be calling for order, not talking of a legal breakdown

Peter Robinson must resist the temptation to lock horns with the police and courts; it doesn't fit his position as First Minister. He should leave the rhetoric to those further down the ladder.

Mr Robinson's recent comments on policing would not have shocked, and would have been seen as part of the normal political cut and thrust, if they had come from someone like Paul Girvan, his Justice spokesman.

They could also have been made by the DUP's other East Belfast MLAs Sammy Douglas or Robin Newton, the latter a member of the Policing Board and doubly qualified to speak.

Coming from Mr Robinson they are more serious and the issue becomes not so much what his argument is but why he is making it.

Mr Robinson fired two recent verbal broadsides. The first came at his East Belfast Constituency Association where he criticised both the police and the courts.

"When brought before the courts, the community has a right to expect fairness in how the judiciary deals with bail applications. How can it be that a senior republican whose terrorist activities I exposed in the House of Commons can be given bail but loyalists on protests are not?" he asked.

The reference was to Sean Hughes, recently charged with IRA membership and with organising an IRA meeting.

"For our society to move forward it is not only the political institutions but the police and courts that must act even-handedly.... if this balance fails people become alienated and the system breaks down".

It is a very serious matter for the First Minister to talk of a breakdown of the legal system.

That is something that you do in opposition, not when you head a government. Bail was denied because illegal protests were ongoing and the courts believed that releasing those involved risked fuelling them.

If Mr Robinson wants another approach he should try to get agreement to change the law.

In the meantime he should be calling for a return to order.

Mr Robinson took another swing at the legal system after meeting PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott. He claimed sections of the unionist community questioned impartiality of the police and thought the courts one-sided.

He defended the comments by saying "our job is to express the concerns as we hear them". That isn't the whole story. As First Minister he has more vital duties than letting off steam.

He is the head of government, responsible for keeping the whole show on the road and for preserving the integrity of the state. Justice is devolved, so if the courts and police fail the administration fails with them.

Matt Baggott is a mild-mannered man, but even he took the opportunity to point to Mr Robinson's responsibilities.

"Policing alone does not hold the solutions to the current dispute and grievances which requires renewed political dialogue and innovation," he said.

He added: "I will support fully the development of the Shared Future Strategy and look forward to this with optimism."

When things get rough it is the duty of the First and Deputy First Minister to build consensus.

Picking a side in every dispute only raises question marks over the whole viability of the arrangements at Stormont.

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