The Perils of Politicising the Transfer of Policing and Justice Powers to Northern Ireland.
With the dust settled on Belfast's link up with the Modern Liberty Convention in London, it is time to take stock of all that has been achieved. As a paying customer I found the convention to be a resounding success thanks to the hardworking organisers and volunteers of the joint QUB/Amnesty event who provided a smooth service for all participants. An army of bloggers covered every session and provided insightful commentary on the action as it happened. A review of these blogs suggests that the thriving Northern Ireland Human Rights community were successful in applying their concerns to an array of pertinent local issues.
The organisers did take some risks however (no doubt to extend the rights debate to the widest possible audience), and it was with a risky panel selection that we experienced possibly the most heated and interesting debate of the day. The "Devolving Criminal justice and policing – human rights considerations" session was dominated by an array of panellists representing our main political parties. And despite the tenacious efforts of Aideen Gilmore of CAJ to keep the session to a rights-based agenda, this type of panel was always going to produce political fireworks.
The room was packed out and I had a front row seat allowing me to experience at close quarters the interplay from this battle of the political egos. The session was progressing well as each panellist showed that they were well briefed on the subject. Issues such as the need to prevent the kind of popular punitiveness experienced in Scotland's devolution were discussed along with the need to protect the Human Rights of victims. The problem of balancing the independence of the Criminal Justice system with a need for accountability was mooted and the ground was being laid for an interesting debate.
This began to change when the late arrival of the SDLP's Alban Maginnis coincided with a noticeable difference in mood among the panellists. It worsened as the panel’s attempt to discuss the main challenges and opportunities afforded by a Human Rights-based approach to devolving policing and justice started to founder amidst the wrangling over which party should supply the newly empowered justice minister.
Alex Maskey stated his strong support for the devolution of policing and justice and heavily criticised the current justice system. He described the Judiciary as a revolving door justice system beset by reactionary legislation rushed through by the media obsessed centralised Government. Maginnis responded by describing the entire process as a farce and said he didn’t know what all the fuss was about. Northern Ireland already has a devolved police and prison service and would not gain much more as the most important powers such as the ability to appoint Judges had already been ceded to Westminster.
At this point I was thinking of taking cover such was the vehemence of the debate. Basil McCrea of the UUP lamented that there was were no independent political decisions being made in Northern Ireland and stated that the SDLP were just annoyed because they would have been next in line for the justice ministry under the current rotation system. Maginnis's response confirmed this theory by some distance and as the anger grew the statistics began to fly and the depressing tribalism that besets our local politics came to the fore.
Paradoxically each member of the panel agreed that building public confidence was a vital part of the process. This will remain elusive when our leading politicians are struggling to set aside their own political agendas for the sake of constructing a unified front on justice policy.
It needed the intervention of Colin Harvey head of the School of Law Queens University to bring it all back to a Human Rights perspective. Colin stated his belief that a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland is the missing piece of the jigsaw, without it he argued, the rights of people can not be protected properly. Colin finished with a warning: "we must not be complacent with the Judiciary, do not confuse independence with accountability!" The panel all had their heads up desperate to respond, but alas time was up, better luck next time guys (for all our sakes).
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.