Page last updated at 13:58 GMT, Monday, 12 April 2010 14:58 UK

New era for policing and justice in Northern Ireland

By Mark Simpson
BBC Ireland correspondent

David Ford
David Ford is leader of the cross-community Alliance Party

Northern Ireland's new justice minister David Ford will have a special place in Stormont history, in more ways than one.

His office is situated in Castle Buildings where the Good Friday Agreement - the so-called peace deal - was signed in April 1998.

When he sits down down at his new desk, he will become the first Northern Ireland politician to hold security powers since 1972.

That was the worst year of the Troubles - 479 people were killed.

Northern Ireland was in turmoil, and local politicians were not trusted by the then Prime Minister Edward Heath to be in charge of justice and policing.

It is a measure of how much has changed in recent years that those powers are now being handed back.

However, such powers are still so sensitive that the two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, could not agree on a unionist or a nationalist candidate.

David Ford is the leader of the cross-community Alliance Party.

It's a bit like the stabilisers coming off the bicycle. We're being given the chance to prove ourselves and demonstrate that we're grown up enough to go forward without any help
Stormont insider

The 59-year-old former social worker studied economics at university and now looks like being faced with the biggest numbers of his career - a department with 4,491 employees, and a £1.4bn budget.

Two-thirds of the money is taken up with policing.

The job description can be boiled down to three words - keeping people safe.

It is easier said than done, particularly given the threat posed by dissident republicans opposed to the peace process.

Also, the marching season will soon begin in Northern Ireland. There will be no time for a relaxed, settling-in period.

Accountability rise

The minister will not be able to interfere with the day-to-day running of the police or courts, but will decide on overall policy and could reshape parts of the system.

If the new minister wants to make a mark before the next Assembly Election in May next year, there will not be much time to do it. Stand by for a high-action few months.

Clues to what David Ford may try to do can be found on the Alliance Party website. It talks about the need for a long list of measures including:

* improving the speed of justice;

* more visible policing on the streets;

* reform of and within the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

All of the above will take time. It is unlikely that a week after the devolution of policing powers that anything much in Northern Ireland will seem to have changed.

However, the level of accountability will rise significantly.

Policing and justice matters will be scrutinised like never before, and if you have a bone to pick with the minister in charge, you no longer need to wait in the arrivals lounge of Belfast International Airport for him or her to arrive on a plane from London.

The new minister faces a huge challenge, and so does the entire power-sharing executive, as they exercise the new functions handed over from London.

However, some see it as an opportunity rather than a challenge.

One Stormont insider put it like this: "It's a bit like the stabilisers coming off the bicycle. We're being given the chance to prove ourselves. And demonstrate that we're grown up enough to go forward without any help."

Don't be surprised if there are a few wobbles along the way.

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