During questions in the House of Commons yesterday, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson, asked a supplementary question about the devolution of responsibility for criminal justice and policing.
It is worth noting that the Secretary of State (and former Conservative MP) Shaun Woodward did not rule out bringing forward legislation in event of a local lack of agreement on the matter.
The Executive in Northern Ireland has not met since June.
Here is the relevant exchange:
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): Northern Ireland is not exempt from the economic crisis. Unemployment rose by 45 per cent. during the past year in mid-Ulster —[ Interruption. ]
Mr. Paterson: The priorities for people outside the political bubble are the matters that affect them every day, rather than the timing of devolution of policing and justice. As the impasse is not on the principle, but on the timetable of devolution, has the right hon. Gentleman made it crystal clear that blocking the Executive is wholly unacceptable as recession looms?
Mr. Woodward: It has to be said that the Executive not meeting would be unacceptable to all those who want to see stable government, whether there is a downturn or not—or whatever description the hon. Gentleman chooses of the economic situation of the country. However, there should not be a false choice. It is not a choice between the Executive meeting or not dealing with the devolution of policing and justice. It was essential to bring the nationalist and republican community on board that the articles of faith enshrined in the principles of St. Andrews, between the two Governments, were seen as such. It remains as important today as it was this time last year that Unionism demonstrates its commitment to completing devolution, but that is not a choice with the Executive not meeting. The Executive must meet because there are decisions to be made. I hope—I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the
Government on this point—that we can get all parties in Northern Ireland to focus on what needs to be done, which is to address the problems of the downturn, of course, but they cannot be allowed simply to park the issue of policing and justice for another day. The work on that issue needs to continue now.
Mr. Paterson: The right hon. Gentleman mentioned St. Andrews, where the British and Irish Governments agreed that devolution should go ahead only when cross-community confidence was sufficient. As all parties in Northern Ireland bought into the current settlement, will he give the House a clear assurance that the matter should be decided locally and that, if there is still no agreement from the Executive on timing in current months, he will not introduce legislation to impose it on one section of the community?
Mr. Woodward: As I have already said, it remains the view of the Government that the parties in Northern Ireland should be able to find a resolution to these issues. Equally, it remains the case that the British and Irish Governments have not simply washed their hands of responsibility for ensuring the stability of government in Northern Ireland, as it has still yet to complete devolution, not least with the transfer of policing and justice powers. Therefore, as in other areas of Government policy, we will stand with the people of Northern Ireland. We will help the people of Northern Ireland in any way that we are asked to achieve stability in government. That means encouraging not only the Executive to meet, but the political parties to complete the policing and justice process, not least because we believe that there is now sufficient community confidence to do that, and it is the duty of politicians there to proceed and execute their responsibilities for stability.