President and Cowen welcome decision on policing
GERRY MORIARTY, Northern Editor - The Irish Times - Wed, Mar 10, 2010
PRESIDENT MARY McAleese and Taoiseach Brian Cowen were among those who warmly welcomed yesterday’s Assembly decision to devolve policing and justice powers from Westminster to Stormont.
A Minister for Justice for Northern Ireland is now due to be appointed on April 12th.
Despite the Ulster Unionist Party opposition, the Assembly overwhelmingly voted – by 88 votes to 17 – in favour of the devolving of powers.
Yesterday’s vote marks the effective completion of devolution, although some matters such as MI5 operations and the running of the Serious Organised Crime Agency will be reserved to Westminster.
The vote has triggered fresh speculation about the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth, visiting the Republic
Two years ago at Queen’s University Belfast, President McAleese, citing Government policy, made clear an invitation could only be issued when devolution was completed.
President McAleese in her statement last night made no reference to a possible visit. However, she is on record as saying she wishes a visit to happen but that it is a matter for the British and Irish governments.
Asked about a visit on RTÉ yesterday evening, Mr Cowen said he did not want to anticipate what might happen, but rather to focus on yesterday’s “historic” decision to transfer justice powers.
The only grouping to oppose justice devolution in the Assembly yesterday was the Ulster Unionist Party.
All but one of the UUP’s 18 Assembly members – the Rev Robert Coulter who was in London receiving an MBE – voted against the transfer of justice powers.
Some Ulster Unionists had expressed hope that their opposition to the transfer of powers would panic a sufficient number of DUP Assembly members to abstain or vote against the transfer of powers motion.
But when the vote was taken shortly before 5pm yesterday all but one of the DUP’s MLAs who were entitled to vote, the Rev William McCrea, united behind First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson in supporting the motion.
Mr McCrea was excused from the vote because he was attending a funeral, according to the DUP. His son, Ian, who is also an MLA, supported the motion.
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds, who on Sunday week warned that his party could not support the motion without UUP support, indicated that since then the DUP established that there was unionist community confidence for creating a Department of Justice.
In total 34 of the DUP’s 36 MLAs voted for the transfer of justice powers. The DUP speaker William Hay would only have been entitled to cast his ballot in the event of a tied vote.
Progressive Unionist Party leader Dawn Purvis also supported the motion, making a total of 35 unionists supporting devolution of justice.
A total of 44 nationalists also voted in favour – 27 Sinn Féin members, 16 SDLP members and former Sinn Féin member, Gerry McHugh, now an independent,from Fermanagh.
The seven Alliance members, the single Green Party MLA Brian Wilson and the independent non-aligned MLA, Dr Kieran Deeny from Omagh, also voted for the transfer of powers.
Yesterday’s vote paves the way for a justice minister to be appointed on April 12th. This almost certainly will be Alliance leader David Ford as the only other declared candidate, the SDLP’s Alban Maginness, is unlikely to command the cross-community unionist-nationalist support required to be appointed.
On April 12th some 540 officials are due to transfer from the Northern Ireland Office to the new department.
The department will have a budget for 2010/2011 of £1.3 billion, which excludes the £800 million that British prime minister Gordon Brown has pledged to pay for additional matters such as a police training college, hearing loss claims and police pensions.
Mr Cowen and Mr Brown in a joint statement hailed yesterday’s vote as a “significant step forward for the people of Northern Ireland”, which sent a “clear message of confidence in the future, and commitment to build on the gains of the peace process that have been achieved over the last 12 years”.
Northern Secretary Shaun Woodward and the PSNI chief constable Matt Baggott also welcomed the vote.
This is certainly an historic moment in the history of the North of Ireland. The final piece of the devolution puzzle is finally in place in accordance with the Good Friday and St. Andrew’s Agreements. Now, it is up to the N.I. Assembly to prove that they can, in fact, effectively conduct all aspects of day to day government without engaging in long periods of suspension of business predicated on petty political differences. All of the barriers to progress have now been removed, the time has come to get serious about conducting business for the betterment of all of the people of the North of Ireland. The world will be watching.