Wednesday, 10 March 2010

No Justice Found In This Unholy Alliance

So the NI Assembly has voted and finally agreed to the devolution of Policing and Justice powers from Westminster. This follows protracted negotiations and recent talks between all the major parties and the British and Irish Prime Ministers.

The SDLP had been the only party to make a nomination for the role of Justice Minister until the Alliance Party finally confirmed, what many commentators had expected, and signalled their intention to nominate also.

The major area of interest though throughout this saga has been the issue surrounding the allocation of the position or what party should be the recipient of the new Justice Ministry. If the Ministry was allocated by the d’Hondt procedure, the normal procedure for allocating Ministries in this power-sharing system, then it would be the SDLP that would be entitled to take the position.

However the UK Northern Ireland Act (2009) stipulated that if devolution of powers would occur, during the lifetime of this assembly, a future Justice Ministry would be allocated by a cross-community vote in the Assembly. The Alliance nomination, coupled with this departure from the d’Hondt mechanism, has caused consternation and concern in some quarters and quite rightfully for number of reasons.

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement the allocation of positions on the Northern Ireland Executive is performed under d’Hondt. Now it seems that this procedure enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement is all of a sudden politically expendable and conveniently ignored at the behest of the British Government.

The Alliance Party previously stated that they do not wish to be part of the Executive. Now we see a complete policy somersault by Alliance simply because their political principles can be bought. This volte-face came about after the DUP and Sinn Fein agreed to a much awaited, but cobbled-together, community relations strategy for NI. It has taken 12 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement for a community relations strategy to be agreed and so the timing of this is obviously questionable with the strategy seen by many as condition for Alliance support.

If the Alliance Party nomination is passed by the Assembly it will mean that out of 108 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) 104 members belong to parties which form the Government. That would not be democracy. It would be a form of tyranny and an affront democracy. How can the NI Executive be held to account by a body that is overwhelming dominated by parties of the Executive? It frankly can not be. It would be a wholly undemocratic arrangement, with dire consequences for the quality of legislation and the political health of the Assembly.

The UK Northern Ireland Act (2009) highlights that the British Government has been completely complicit in a process of political manipulation that has involved slowly stripping away the terms of the Good Friday Agreement in order to prop-up the DUP and Sinn Fein leadership. You can't just change the rules half way through the game in order to engineer a particular outcome- that is gerrymandering. Just when we thought that the malign influences of the past were dead and buried it seems that gerrymandering is still alive and well in 21st century Northern Ireland.

Frankly the Northern Ireland Act 2009 was an affront to democracy. Not only did the Government put the legislation through accelerated passage to prevent proper scrutiny of the bill but they also enforced limited debate and opportunity for amendments. There are many issues of concern around this legislation, such as the issues surrounding the 2012 sunset clause, the role of the PPS, M15 and intelligence gathering, etc. While these issues remain important, they do not distract from what is the major issue in my eyes- the change from the normal procedure for appointing ministers.

There has been no credible justification or rationale for this departure from normal procedure. The Ministry should be treated equally along with all the other Ministries, allocated by the same procedure, and should not be made into a special case. The rationale that the Justice position requires specific “cross-community” support implies that all Ministers in the Executive currently do not command cross-party support across the Assembly. While that is probably true, it is the reality of power-sharing within a divided society and within the terms of a mandatory coalition.

Why is there such a preoccupation with the precondition of having a “cross-community” vote for the Justice post? Other Ministers do not require this prerequisite – they are elected by their constituents to the Assembly and nominated by their respective party directly to the Executive. That is representative democracy. What is needed is not special arrangements for the allocation of contentious Executive positions – but a much more accountable political dispensation around Executive table decision-making to ensure that Ministers are held properly to account and can not create the type of crisis such as that already created in our Education system.

The argument made by advocates for this change in procedure, that the departure from d’Hondt is necessary to protect Policing and Justice issues from divisive political interventions in line with the political policing of the past, is misled. We already have the Policing Board, local District Policing Partnerships and sufficient accountability mechanisms within the Executive to ensure sufficient accountability. Furthermore, the future Justice Minister will only have nominal powers and major operational issues remain the responsibility of the Police Chief Constable - so there is very little wriggle-room for a Justice Minister to create controversy.

The change in allocation procedure has been a calculated move by the British Government in order to secure the support of the DUP for the devolution of Policing powers, by denying the position to the nationalist SDLP. This would be directly prior to a pivotal General Election for the DUP - faced with the threat from the dissident unionists within the TUV. The DUP would not want a nationalist being appointed Justice Minister full stop - never mind right before a pivotal General Election. It is also an attempt to hijack the idea of "cross-community" for political ends by dressing up what is political expediency as the common good. Equally it has been a sop to Sinn Fein, who for obvious propaganda purposes wish to see themselves as the first ever Nationalist Justice Minister, not the SDLP.

This departure from the normal process of d’Hondt has ignored the democratic mandate of the SDLP and denied their supporters their full political rights- simply in order to appease the major parties. It is inherently undemocratic, an act of discrimination. It is quite clear that the setting down of preconditions for the allocation of the Justice post is a blatant guise for gerrymandering.

The need for increased cross-community consensus in all realms of political life here is clearly evident but I am not naïve enough to believe that the reason behind this move to change the appointment procedure for a Justice Minister has anything to do with "cross-community" consensus. Nor am I naive enough to believe that such a vote in the Assembly will automatically create "cross-community" consensus around Policing and Justice issues, that is a process that will take time.

Allocating Ministers on the basis of a “cross-community” vote in the Assembly undermines power-sharing by ignoring the d’Hondt procedure and the differing mandates giving to the various political parties by the electorate. It is the vote of the people that should determine the make up of the Government – not an internal vote taken by political parties within the legislature. If the Alliance Party had any respect for democracy then they would not participate in such a fait d’accompli. Alliance should recognise the mandate of the SDLP and support the SDLP candidate for Justice Minister.

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