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Alliance leader Ford is new Justice Minister

Alliance Party leader David Ford was selected as Northern Ireland's new Justice Minister today after policing and justice powers were devolved from Westminster to the Stormont Assembly.

The powers were transferred at midnight and were followed minutes later by a bomb attack launched by the dissident republican Real IRA on MI5's Northern Ireland headquarters at Palace Barracks in Holywood, Co Down. One man was injured.

But politicians proceeded with today's planned vote at the Assembly and selected Mr Ford as a compromise cross-community candidate for the new role after separate unionist and nationalist candidates were voted down.

Mr Ford takes on the role of Justice Minister after the deal brokered between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein at Hillsborough Castle in February paved the way for the devolution move.

The Alliance leader welcomed his election in the Assembly today, which came with the support of the two major parties, saying: "This is, I believe, a significant day for Northern Ireland.

"It is a step forward in the peace process, in the political process, and in ensuring that the institutions which have been in place since 1998 are firmly affixed and are playing their part in serving the needs for the people of Northern Ireland."

He said the Palace Barracks bomb attack underlined the need for politicians to work together.

One elderly man suffered minor injuries in the bombing, where dissident republicans kidnapped a taxi driver and forced him to drive the device to the base.

There had been fears dissident republicans opposed to the peace process would launch attacks to overshadow the devolution process.

The issue of devolving law and order powers to the Assembly had divided the DUP and Sinn Fein for years and as recently as January threatened to spark the collapse of the power-sharing government led by the two parties.

But in the deal brokered at Hillsborough, the DUP agreed to republican demands for political control of policing to be devolved into local hands, while Sinn Fein agreed to unionist calls for a new system to monitor loyal order parades.

First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson earlier told the Assembly the transfer of the powers meant a whole raft of new legislation came under the Assembly's remit.

He added that perhaps the most important implication for the Executive was the enhanced capacity to address policy problems and look at issues such as promoting good relations, education and health.

"I hope that the Executive will now exploit this potential to the full. This will demonstrate to our people the value of devolution, of local control and of local accountability," he said.

"Today represents another stage in Northern Ireland moving forward to a better future."

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) refused to vote in favour of the devolution of the powers last month, claiming the Assembly was not yet ready to take responsibility for such sensitive issues.

The nationalist SDLP objected to the system for selecting the new minister. It claimed it should have received the job, in line with the existing power-sharing rules to appoint ministerial posts on the basis of party strength.

The Hillsborough deal saw the DUP and Sinn Fein agree instead to select a candidate through a cross community vote of the Assembly, which was always likely to see the smaller Alliance Party win most support.

Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said under the terms of the Hillsborough deal, the change in voting arrangements was temporary and a permanent position would have to be agreed by 2012.

He rejected the criticisms of the UUP and SDLP, while branding the actions of armed dissident groups as futile.

He added: "I do believe that the overwhelming majority of our people in the north and throughout the island of Ireland are wholeheartedly in support of the agreements that have been made, and in the further step now that we take today to push the peace process forward, and the levels of cooperation between us, pushed forward in a way that is unprecedented in this House."

Acting chair of the Policing Board Brian Rea said: "Today is an historic day for the people of Northern Ireland and marks another milestone for the peace process and policing.

"Whilst the Board's oversight role and responsibilities will remain unchanged, the new devolved arrangements will undoubtedly bring some new challenges for policing.

"There will also be opportunities for partnership working across the wider Criminal Justice sector and building new relationships with other agencies."

Belfast Telegraph


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