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Devolved policing powers 'very near'

Northern Ireland's politicians are close to taking on policing powers at Stormont and should not be knocked off course by the European election, Secretary of State Shaun Woodward said today.

Mr Woodward said substantial momentum had been created towards securing the devolution of policing and justice powers and he urged the parties to complete the process when the June 4 election has ended.

And responding to speculation that October could be the likely devolution date, he agreed that the autumn was a realistic target.

"I think that is an entirely do-able time scale," he said.

"Clearly confidence is crucial, but you know there could have been no greater challenge to confidence than what happened in March."

Mr Woodward said the political parties had united in opposition to violence launched by groups opposed to the peace process.

In separate attacks in March dissident republicans shot dead soldiers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey at Massereene army base in Antrim and Constable Stephen Carroll in Craigavon, with four people now charged over the killings.

"The unity of purpose showed by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, and all of the party leaders, caught the attentions of not only the people of Northern Ireland and the UK and Ireland, but around the world," he said.

"This is a set of institutions, as we mark the second anniversary (of the Assembly), that have matured far more quickly and with far greater depth than I think any of us could have anticipated.

"And if you look at what the dissidents were trying to do, they know that the progress being made by the politicians here is far faster than they thought could be done.

"They wanted to challenge it. Their mistake is that they thought that the progress was shallow and could be shaken. What they found of course was the very opposite."

Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) were locked in a tense stand-off last year over republican demands for the swift devolution of policing and justice powers.

The parties clashed after a target date for devolution passed without progress.

The dispute blocked meetings of the Northern Ireland Executive for five months before agreement was reached in November for a choreography of moves that will lead to the creation of a new department of justice at Stormont.

The DUP and Sinn Fein have agreed that neither of them will take the sensitive new ministerial post and a Stormont Committee is now reviewing the mechanics of the process.

When the parties confirm they wish to initiate the devolution procedures, legislation will have to be prepared at Westminster and the Assembly.

Mr Woodward, who has been in talks with party leaders, urged parties not to engage in clashes during the European election that might disrupt progress.

The DUP is fighting to unseat former party member Jim Allister, who now leads the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party which opposes power-sharing with Sinn Fein.

The DUP is expected to take one of Northern Ireland's three European seats, with one also likely to go to the Ulster Unionist Party.

And while Sinn Fein's sitting MEP Bairbre de Brun is expected to hold her seat, the split in the unionist vote could also see her top the poll.

Mr Woodward said: "What the politicians have got to do now, whatever distractions inevitably come along in any election process, is that on June 5, continue where you left off.

"I am therefore saying that instead of what normally might happen, which is that June and July passes, and then it's the summer recess, and then it's October, actually don't lose that time, use it."

He added: "The British government has kept its side of the bargain.

"We have prepared the mechanisms, we are working at the moment on the issue of finance, if the politicians here ask for that transformation to take place, we will be ready to do that."

Asked if he wanted to steward the process through to its completion, or whether he may be moved to a new government post in any possible cabinet reshuffle, Mr Woodward said that was a matter for the Prime Minister.

"My job has been to create the climate in which the politicians can have the confidence to get to this moment," he said.

"It's up to the politicians here, when they choose, to take that moment. But my sense is that we are very near it."

He added: "The best signal we can send to so-called dissident republicans, that their mission is entirely futile as well as illegal, is to just get on with it."

A DUP spokesman said: "The Secretary of State would appear to have forgotten the fact that the DUP position on policing and justice is not framed by dates or timetables.

"Our key and fundamental objective is that devolution of policing and justice can only take place when there is sufficient community confidence.

"Whilst it is now clear to all that there will be no Sinn Fein minister, the Secretary of State would be better spent ensuring his colleagues at the Treasury deliver on the necessary funding to ensure that both policing and justice functions in the Province are satisfactorily resourced.

"Until the issue of finance, amongst other things, is resolved then there will be no devolution of policing and justice.

"Empty rhetoric will do nothing to speed this process."

Belfast Telegraph