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Agreement at last!

The Democratic Unionist Party have voted to agree a deal with Sinn Fein over the devolution of policing and justice powers from Westminster to Northern Ireland. Another epic Northern Irish impasse has been surmounted and much of the media and the political establishments are positively euphoric!

So why did it take so long?

In a word, ‘unionist division’, but that’s two words I hear you say, no it isn’t, yes it is! You get my drift. On BBC radio this morning, the influential journalist Liam Clarke described the problems the DUP have experienced in making a deal at a time when unionism is heavily divided. When the DUP put in the long hours at the negotiating table, one of their unionist counterparts the hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice were shouting ‘never’! While the other, the moderate Ulster Unionist Party were proclaiming ‘not now’! It was hardly surprising, amidst the real fears that they were moving away from their electorate, that 14 members of the DUP voted against the deal on Monday night.

Peter Robinson, now firmly back at the helm after his ‘family problems’, quelled the discord in record time and Prime Ministers Brown and Cowen have rubber stamped the process at Hillsborough Castle this morning. The only obstacle remaining is a cross community vote on devolving the powers in the NI assembly on March 9th  (merely a formality considering the voting power of Sinn Fein and the DUP) and Policing and justice is set for devolution on April 12th.

So what will it change?

Good question. Patrick Corrigan has already written forcibly that the saga over devolution has only highlighted the need for a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights that can ensure issues like policing and justice are protected from the harm caused by political inertia. And leading academic Kieran McEvoy has repeatedly argued that the shelving of the Eames-Bradley Report from the Consultative Group on the Past makes devolution of policing and justice immaterial, as the ‘legitimacy’ of public structures can only be fostered once we have found a way to deal with the legacy of our troubled past.

On a more optimistic note, devolution should bring about the much-needed final investment that our police service requires. Until now, rigid budgeting structures have ensured that every administrative improvement brought in by the Chief Constable has been at the expense of front line police officers. Demands for more visible effective policing have been the main theme at the various police forums and community meetings so any increase in officers at the ‘coal face’ would be greatly welcomed.

However, we would be naïve to believe that somehow the passing of the policing batten from London to a local minister will suddenly lead to a new desire to end the establishment's control of policing in Northern Ireland. The new justice minister should be reminded that the ambition of Chris Patten’s Independent Commission on Policing was for a policing service that has human right and policing with the community as its fundamental role. Devolution or not, policing in Northern Ireland still has a long way to go before these ambitions become more than something that sounds good at a conference.

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