Page last updated at 16:20 GMT, Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Agreement leaves unanswered questions

Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson

Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward called it "historic", while Taoiseach Brian Cowen described it as "the final piece of the jigsaw".

But although it points the way to the completion of devolution, the latest agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin still leaves a number of questions unanswered.

One informed source told me the transfer of powers would take months, not years
The biggest question is when a new Northern Ireland justice minister will be appointed.

For nearly five months, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin refused to allow executive meetings to take place.

His complaint was the DUP's alleged failure to implement the St Andrews Agreement of 2006.

His demand was that they should set a definite date for the devolution of policing and justice powers.

The DUP insisted that it was not them but the government which had set at St Andrews the date of May 2008 for devolving justice.

The identification of a future attorney general serves to emphasise that this is not just an exercise in procrastination
DUP leader Peter Robinson contended that his party had not signed up for any timetable.

The latest agreement contains a "process paper", setting out six groups of actions which will have to be completed before the transfer of justice powers can take place.

There is no timeline spelled out in black and white.

However, one informed source told me the transfer of powers would take months, not years.

Real process

The identification of a future attorney general, barrister John Larkin, serves to emphasise that this is a real process, not just an exercise in procrastination.

The method of appointing a justice minister which the DUP and Sinn Féin have settled on is a cross-community vote in the assembly, with a majority both of unionists and of nationalists required to back a successful candidate.

This is the same system which they deemed acceptable back in the summer.

However, in the intervening period the parties had haggled over whether the cross-community election would be permanent or temporary.

The DUP wanted the cross-community support to be required "at all times".

The eventual choice of justice minister will no doubt be subject to some careful political calculations

Having signed a letter containing this phrase, Sinn Féin baulked at the notion, insisting it should only apply for the first justice appointment.

The solution to this row has been the inclusion of what is known as a "sunset clause" ensuring that the system must be reviewed by May 2012.

All the existing ministries are handed out one-by-one according to the D'Hondt mathematical formula which is related to the parties' strength in the assembly.

For the DUP it was important that the sensitive justice job was not put into this mix in order to ensure that the portfolio could not go to a republican with an IRA background, like the current junior minister Gerry Kelly.

The cross-community vote has put the middle of the road Alliance in the frame.

Looming elections

But Mr McGuinness says he is not ruling out the SDLP and, theoretically at least, the UUP could also put up a candidate.

Given that the DUP and Sinn Féin have the votes to determine who the minister will be, the eventual choice will no doubt be subject to some careful political calculations.

As the legislation setting up the new justice department moves through Stormont and Westminster, next year's European elections will loom closer.

Voters will now be impatient to see some evidence that devolution can work

This is significant because the DUP's arch critic, Jim Allister, will be defending his seat against his former colleagues.

Much of the DUP's sensitivity over the transfer of powers has been related to the MEP's focus on the potential for a republican say in justice matters.

The DUP has written into the agreed process for transferring policing and justice the need for confidence-building.

They will want to establish in the unionist mind that the new minister will not be a republican.

They will also have to decide whether to push ahead with the transfer before the June European election or wait until later in the year.

Whilst most people can be forgiven for not being especially interested in the details of how and when a justice minister will be appointed, some of the issues which have been delayed during the past five months will need no explanation.

Decisions on fuel poverty and rural planning are not within the scope of the latest agreement.

But with the Northern Ireland Executive now pledged to hold weekly meetings until its backlog has been cleared, voters will now be impatient to see some evidence that devolution can work.

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