Tuesday 12 May 2009

Policing hasn't gone away, you know

Last year's big issue, the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast, hasn't gone away. The attention of Northern Ireland's limited number of politicians and commentators is currently being diverted to the European Parliament election (which has the strange feature of being as interesting to the political anoraks as it is boring to the general public), and the issue of corruption by MPs in Westminster..

But the long stand-off in 2008 and its muffled compromise have not yet resolved the issue. Policing and justice have not yet been devolved, and while part of the compromise was clearly that nothing would be done until the European election was over, that time has nearly come.

So where are the signs of movement?

Well, so far there have been two significant signs. Firstly, Peter Robinson recently 'discovered' that the UDA were not cuddly social workers – since this was clearly not a revelation to him, it signifies that he has realised that he must start to take a responsible position vis-à-vis loyalist violence in order to be consistent. It implies that he foresees a need to project a mature and responsible position on policing.

Secondly, the emphasis that the DUP are placing on the reasons for delaying the devolution of policing and justice has changed. In the past they consistently claimed that they could not agree to devolution until there was sufficient "confidence of the community" (the 'community' being, of course, only the unionist half of the whole). Now, however, the emphasis has shifted decisively to the issue of money. No longer is the un-measurable 'confidence' the key stumbling block – it is the budget.

On Friday 8 May in Derry, Peter Robinson put it like this:

"Clearly it is important that we get the issue of policing and justice right and that means we have to have the confidence of the community in the devolution of those functions. We also have to have the funding in place. It would be entirely wrong for us to have those powers devolved unless the money was there for us to do the job properly and negotiations with the Treasury and the Prime Minister will continue to make sure we get that right."

He was asked how long did he think the negotiations will continue: "Until we get the right answers," he replied. Pressed for a possible timetable, he added: "If you start putting time limits then you give the opportunity to the Treasury to be able to simply play for time on the issue and I'm not going to do that."

On the issue of unionist 'confidence', Robinson was equally clear. Asked about his working relationship with Martin McGuinness, Robinson said:

"I think that everybody knows the past is not hidden. We saw the action of the Deputy First Minister standing with the Chief Constable after the murders of the two soldiers and a policeman calling for support to be given to the PSNI and asking for people to pass information on. That's exactly what we expect of elected representatives and I think again people will see that as a sea change in the way republicans now act."

That is a very thinly veiled retreat from the previous position, and provides Robinson with cover to claim that now he (aka 'the community') has confidence in Sinn Féin.

Reading between the lines, this implies that policing and justice will be devolved a soon as the budget is agreed, and the European election is over. Any further delays will be seen by Sinn Féin as evidence of extreme bad faith, and could lead to another deadlock like that of 2008 – which the DUP will presumably not want in the run-up to the Westminster election next year.

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