Page last updated at 20:33 GMT, Wednesday, 20 August 2008 21:33 UK

Scale of justice job 'daunting'

Martina Purdy
By Martina Purdy
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

Police car
The debate over policing is set to intensify in the autumn

The old Stormont had control of policing and justice powers - but lost them in 1972, when direct rule was imposed.

The new Stormont is still waiting for these powers to be transferred from Westminster.

Most agree it's only a matter of time, as the DUP and Sinn Fein both agree it should happen.

The question is when.

Sinn Fein is getting impatient that the DUP is refusing to move on the issue.

The DUP says it's a matter of public confidence. The DUP is also concerned that the issue could put too much pressure on an assembly which is already deadlocked over key issues such as education reform.

One senior DUP figure has privately complained that the issue could "poison" assembly debates.

This week's row over Ian Paisley Junior's remarks about police officers being able to "shoot on sight" dissident republicans illustrates the political gulf that still exists.

His comments outraged both Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

Nevertheless, the DUP and Sinn Fein have moved a step closer. The first and deputy first minister agreed earlier this month that there should be a single justice minister elected by the assembly on a cross-community vote.

Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly and the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson won't be up for the job because their parties have agreed not to nominate any of their own members.

'Wait and see'

The Assembly Executive Review Committee (AERC), which had already reported on the issue, has been asked by the First and Deputy First Ministers to further consider the issue.

But their joint letter to the committee gave little guidance as to what it expects.

The committee chairman, the DUP's Jimmy Spratt, said he has forwarded the letter from Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness to each committee member.

Scales of justice
Assembly members are to discuss the role of a justice minister in September

"The committee will meet in early September and all the issues will be discussed... My job as chairman is to facilitate discussion. We will have to wait and see."

So far there is no time frame for the committee to report back.

The committee has already looked at what powers could come to Northern Ireland if powers were transferred.

The police service, for example, would fall under Stormont's remit. Presently there is a tripartite relationship between the secretary of state, the chief constable and the Policing Board.

The secretary of state appoints the board, and sets the budget; the board has an oversight role in setting objectives for the police and holding the Chief Constable to account; and the chief constable, responsible for day to day operations, must answer to the board.

Under devolution of policing powers, a Stormont minister would be stepping into the shoes of Secretary of State Shaun Woodward, although reserved matters such as national security and MI5 would remain with Westminster.

Sir Desmond Rea, chairman of the Policing Board, said Patten's tripartite structure should ensure there is no political interference in day-to-day policing by a Stormont justice minister.

And he quoted Chris Patten's note of caution: "It is, however, vital that the clock is not turned back to the situation before 1969 when the police were seen to be subject to the direction of the minister of home affairs."

It would be a daunting role. It is a massive, massive area that takes years to learn and someone is going to be put into that post overnight
Rosemary Craig
Law lecturer

Sir Desmond pointed out that the parties have supported keeping the tripartite arrangements as a safeguard.

He said the transfer of policing and justice powers to Stormont would be a sign of society moving on.

"There will be hiccups, but that's the challenge," he told the BBC.

Significantly, the assembly, presumably through a new department of justice, would also take responsibility for agencies such as the Prison Service, Forensic Science, Youth Justice, and compensation.

Other responsibilities would include:

• Court Service

• Public Prosecution Service

• Probation Board

• Office of the Police Ombudsman

• Criminal Justice Inspection

• Law Commission

• Judicial Appointments Commission.

Public confidence

Rosemary Craig, a law lecturer from the University of Ulster, said that in future, Stormont could inject more accountability into the justice system, with the appointment of an attorney general.

There could also be a role for the first and deputy first ministers in appointing the commissioners who appoint judges.

Mrs Craig also said devolving justice should lead to more legislation in the assembly, with the possibility of new laws to toughen sentences for convicted criminals.

But she cautions that the appointment of a devolved justice minister is a sensitive issue and, whoever is appointed faces significant challenges, not least in winning over public confidence, particularly among those who suffered most during the Troubles.

"It would be a daunting role. One would have to understand the machinations of the police, the prison service, the public prosecution service, the courts, tribunals. All that is a massive, massive area that takes years to learn and someone is going to be put into that post overnight."

But before any appointment, the parties will have to reach agreement.

Negotiations will intensify in the autumn - with the most contentious issue of all perhaps being a date for devolving policing and justice powers.

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