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David Ford: This is an opportunity for parties to move forward together

In his first in-depth interview since the Assembly voted to trigger the transfer of Policing and Justice powers, David Ford tells Noel McAdam that delays in cases coming to court here are unacceptable and says that Alliance will drop its self-styled ‘opposition’ role after the crucial vote in just over three weeks

David, is everything in terms of the new Department of Justice ready to go from day one and do you think it will prove a ‘battle a day’?

Well, first of all Noel you are assuming that I think I will be minister and that decision still has to be taken by the Assembly and Alliance is making no claim on the post.

I don’t know whether it will be a battle a day because one key thing we have delivered is to get agrements with the First Minister and Deputy FM around the proposals for a Justice Department.

That means that justice shouldn’t be like education, for example, where ministers have no agreement among themselves. There should be enough agreement to ensure that the Department of Justice delivers.

Have you not been giving the impression for some time the job is in the bag?

I certainly don’t agree. What we have done is ensure that justice works well for everyone and delivers on sound policies for everyone and on a Shared Future. That will stand no matter who becomes Justice Minister on April 12.

But what could go wrong now as far as your appointment is concerned?

Well, I think Sinn Fein still say they are supporting Alban Maginness. So nothing is clear cut as yet and we fully recognise that the person who is going to be minister has to attract support from across the Assembly chamber so nobody on that basis should guess what is likely to happen.

Is there any chance that Ulster Unionists will vote for you, and does that matter?

Frankly I have no idea what the Ulster Unionists will do given their behaviour in recent weeks.

It would appear the SDLP is not going to back you. Does that matter?

I think on the basis of what they have said it’s most unlikely the SDLP will support me, but again they will have to decide on the day.

Do you think it’s important that you attempt to persuade the UUP and SDLP to fall in behind you?

I think it is up to every individual to make an assessment as to who they think would be the best.

But isn’t it an ill fit to have a potential Alliance Justice Minister at the behest of Sinn Fein and the DUP which even a few years ago Alliance characterised as the extreme parties?

I am not sure we used the term extremes, I think we talked about the relative extremes. I think they are the two parties which have come together which are starting to say that things can be done right, as in the Hillsborough Agreement, and we will have to judge them on that.

We have criticised all parties in the Executive for what we believe is a failure to deliver up until now. I do believe that the agreement that was reached between the DUP and Sinn Fein at Hillsborough, coupled with the knowledge that they had to agree, for example, policies for the Department of Justice to ensure it will work properly, is an opportunity to move forward together.

Isn’t there a contradiction between being part of, yet continuing to criticise, being half in and half out of the Executive?

When I said we will continue to I meant up until April 12. I have no doubt Alliance MLAs will continue to question Ministers robustly and play their part on committees to ensure good decisions are taken.

Yet at the time of the murder of Paul Quinn (the 21-year-old south Armagh man beaten to death in October, 2007) you accused Sinn Fein and the DUP of a “cosy partnership” deflecting the spotlight from IRA’s involvement. Now you’re going to be Justice Minister at the behest of those two parties. Does that give you cause for concern?

Inevitably there could be difficult circumstances. What an individual MLA is free to say is frequently wider than what a minister is free to say but remember the issue is about decisions on prosecution, the way things are handled through the courts, the Chief Justice, the Chief Constable — operational independence so there will not be any question of a minister directing those agencies either to do something or not to do something.

We have already had the example of you referring to the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday as “pointless”, did you learn any broader lessons in terms of the sensitivities of this post?

Well I supposed I learned that when I write private e-mails I should not send them to SDLP MLAs (Mr Ford accuses the SDLP of leaking his memo to the Liberal Democrats. The SDLP has declined to comment).

Obviously sometimes in private e-mails you simplify things that are quite complex down to one or two words.

When I went to Derry and met some of the families we were able to have a serious discussion and I was able to explain my concerns that Saville will not deliver the closure and the justice which the families have put their hopes in. I still have those doubts.

If you become minister what are the main issues facing the new department?

The reality is that the justice system is extremely complicated. The last count I had I think there were 28 different agencies that were involved with the Deptartment of Justice in some shape or form so there are major issues that need to be done.

There are some issues where we can start to make a change quite quickly, but I don’t expect instant change overnight.

The Department of Justice will not mean a police officer at every corner, it will not mean every teenager who engages in anti-social behaviour is automatically dealt with.

What would be your main priorities?

We do have an opportunity to deal with the speed of justice, and alternatives to prosecution. We also need to get solid local crime reducation partnerships under way, bringing together the best of the DPPs and the community safety partnerships as they currently exist.

What can you do in relation to the speed of justice?

I think the key thing on which a number of other things depend is improving the speed of justice. There are real difficulties in that it takes so long to get people into courts in Northern Ireland compared to other jurisdictions. And though an old cliche justice delayed is justice denied.

What is the difference in time between cases here and England, Scotland and Wales?

Well, a case in Leeds in which a young woman who told a young man in a cinema to be quiet was assaulted. It happened last July and was in court in late February this year. I have said to people that it would have taken two-and-a-half years in Belfast and no one has disputed that.

Why is that?

There are issues around the handling of paperwork and the relationship between police and the prosecution service and the PPS and the court service. I think the message from the new department has to be that that is not acceptable

I think there’s an acceptance in people in both agencies that needs to change. For a start it means so many people are on remand, which has further issues for the Prison Service.

Work on the alternatives to prosecution is already quite far advanced, I understand, is that correct?

Yes, there are a number of areas in which consultation has been going on for quite some time. NIO has not found the Parliamentary time to do things, and one key point is that we can find that time.

It really is ridiculous the number of people who go to prison for fine defaults, for very short periods of time. There have to be better ways.

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