13 February 2006

Bill lays ground for handover of power

Belfast Telegraph

Move hailed 'important first step'

By Brian Walker
13 February 2006

A milestone will be reached in the political process on Thursday, when the Government publishes its long-awaited Bill to hand over justice and policing powers to a functioning Assembly.

The Bill also lays down new tougher rules for party political funding, apparently designed to clip Sinn Fein's wings, and proposes new regulations for the electricity industry to damp down a future prices spiral.

Although vague before serious talking has started and probably not even legally necessary, the Bill is regarded as an essential political step in the talks process, and picks up on a commitment made by the Governments in the comprehensive agreement that collapsed in December 2004.

The Government is hoping that the Bill will provide a framework for the talks as they develop. Any adjustments of detail in the Belfast Agreement on the working of the Assembly and the Executive or the North-South institutions will be left out at this stage, pending agreement by the parties.

These will be added in the form of amendments if the parties meet the Governments' deadline for a deal by April.

While the Bill removes a legal obstacle to a political agreement, its practical effect is likely to be slim.

Although hailed in advance by Sinn Fein Justice spokesman Gerry Kelly as "an important first step", the two Governments and the other parties are not expecting publication to be followed by Sinn Fein joining the Policing Board and supporting the PSNI soon.

Even if the comprehensive agreement had succeeded, it could have taken up to two years for the justice and policing powers actually to have been handed over. Few involved in the talks believe the climate is easier today.

From speeches made by Gerry Adams and Mr Kelly since the New Year, Sinn Fein will only move on supporting the PSNI when the DUP have agreed to devolution and on "the particular model in which justice and policing could be transferred".

Mr Kelly's ambition to "take powers out of the hands of the securocrats" also looks problematical. While the Government has yet to declare its hand, party speculation is that powers over terrorism and national security will be reserved to Westminster indefinitely.

This would mean that the Chief Constable would continue to report to the Secretary of State rather than to a local minister on such matters, including a continuing role for MI5, however much of an anathema that may be to Sinn Fein and opposed by the SDLP.

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