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Owen_paterson_mpShadow Northen Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson spoke for the Conservatives yesterday on the Northern Ireland Bill. The central purpose of the bill is to transfer responsibility for policing and justice to the Northern Ireland Assembly from Parliament – but only once the Assembly requests it and Parliament agrees.

Mr Paterson thanked the Secretary of State (former Tory Shaun Woodward) and his officials, before outlining the Conservative position:

"The last Conservative Government began the peace process, and their work was built on by the current Labour Government. As I said in the debate on the programme motion, it has always been our policy in opposition to set party politics aside on issues concerning Northern Ireland, and broadly to support the Government in their approach to the peace process and devolution.

In doing so, we have not given the Government a blank cheque, however. While trying to be as supportive as possible, we have made constructive and detailed criticisms.

At the outset, I reconfirm that we emphatically support the Belfast agreement and the current devolved institutions that followed on from it. We would like to see the institutions that were established by ensuing agreements working effectively for the good of all the people of Northern Ireland. We have therefore always supported the eventual devolution of criminal justice and policing, when the conditions were right and once the proposed model for devolution had the support of all communities. Devolution of criminal justice and policing was, after all, envisaged in the Belfast agreement and re-affirmed in the joint declaration of 2003, and subsequently at St. Andrews in 2006.

Thanks to the efforts of the last two Governments, Northern Ireland has been transformed. However, when considering the Bill today, we should remember that the current circumstances are not normal. Although the horrific levels of violence experienced during the troubles are now largely behind us, there is still a real threat of brutality from dissident republican groups and so-called loyalist paramilitaries, as the Secretary of State has just mentioned. The dissidents have openly stated that they intend to kill a police officer.

When the Assembly comes to debate the timing of devolution, it should be aware of the extremely difficult conditions in which the police continue to operate, and the serious financial consequences of that. I am also conscious that a number of politicians in Northern Ireland take the view that Stormont should be allowed to settle down and resolve issues such as education before taking on the additional burden of policing and criminal justice. In my opinion, however, that is strictly a matter for the Assembly.

It is important to stress—as the Secretary of State did—that the Bill does not deliver the devolution of criminal justice and policing. That could have been triggered at any time since the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which gave effect to the Good Friday agreement, had there been cross-community support for it. Since then, a number of models for the devolution of criminal justice and policing have been proposed. There are currently seven such models. This Bill creates an eighth model, following exhaustive negotiations in the Northern Ireland Assembly, primarily between the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein. That resulted in a report to the Assembly, which was published in January. We believe that locally elected politicians should ultimately be responsible for such matters, but which model is chosen should be a matter for the parties in the Assembly to agree.

The mechanism for transferring policing and justice in the 1998 Act remains unchanged. Before devolution takes place, it must have the consent of the First Minister, a majority of designated Unionists and nationalists in the Assembly and of both Houses of Parliament. I give a guarantee that any future Conservative Government will fully uphold that triple lock while respecting the decision of the Assembly.

In addition, we have always made it clear that any devolution of policing and justice powers must preserve the operational independence of the Chief Constable and his officers; the independence of the judiciary must also be guaranteed. Those are cardinal principles that cannot be compromised. There must be no question of allowing political interference in such matters in Northern Ireland or in any other part of the United Kingdom.

We are not happy, however, that the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland is, in the words of the explanatory note,

    “independent of a ‘parent’ department within the Northern Ireland departmental system”.

I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s comments, and we will study the text that he referred to in detail, but we believe that devolution of criminal justice and policing would actually be strengthened if the DPP were superintended by the Attorney-General, who, according to the 2002 Act, may participate in the proceedings of the Assembly. We believe that the Attorney-General should be appointed by the Lord Chief Justice on the recommendation of the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission."

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