Northern Ireland

Stormont justice deal to continue beyond deadline

Martin McGuinness
Image caption Martin McGuinness proposed the extension of the devolution of justice powers

MLAs have voted to continue the current arrangement for the Department of Justice.

Martin McGuinness told the assembly that failure to continue the operation of the department would be "a drastic eventuality".

The deputy first minister was proposing a motion on the continued devolution of justice powers beyond 1 May.

This was the date of the "sunset clause" set prior to the devolution of powers in 2010.

Alliance leader David Ford was appointed justice minister at that time.

Mr McGuinness outlined the series of events leading to the motion the assembly discussed.

Alban Maginness of the SDLP described the use of cross-community vote to appoint the justice minister as "a cynical gerrymander" on the part of the DUP and Sinn Fein.

He spoke for his party's amendment, which called for the ministerial appointment to be made under the d'Hondt system

Mr Maginness said the amendment was "about defending and preserving the values of the Good Friday Agreement".

He criticised the Alliance Party for taking the post of justice minister.

"If you have no political compass, no political direction, you will enter into Faustian deals," the North Belfast MLA continued.

UUP leader Tom Elliott chairs the OFMDFM committee. He said his party had opposed the devolution of justice powers in 2010 but that "it would be a retrograde step" if the Department of Justice were not to remain in Northern Ireland.

He said he agreed with some of the points made by Mr Maginness.

William Humphrey of the DUP said "confidence is the key as we move forward". For this reason he said it was not the right time for d'Hondt.

The Alliance party's Chris Lyttle also spoke in favour of the motion and opposed the SDLP amendment. He said a failure to agree on this matter would represent "a backward step for Northern Ireland".

Mr Lyttle said his party did not agree that d'Hondt was the best system for the appointment of ministers.

Ulster Unionist Basil McCrea described the motion as "just another dirty deal".

The single Traditional Unionist Voice MLA, Jim Allister, spoke of the "sordid deal" that led to the devolution of justice.

He said the justice ministry was "a post to which no unionist need apply".

Green party MLA Steven Agnew said there should be one system for the appointment of all ministers.

Winding up for the SDLP amendment, Conall McDevitt said "what is going on here is a political deal".

He quoted from the Good Friday Agreement, stating that he was a republican and that a republican could not go against the will of the people expressed in a referendum.

First Minister Peter Robinson described the SDLP's view on the selection of a justice minister by cross-community vote as "frankly, barking mad".

Mr Robinson said it would be hard to imagine a more democratic process.

The SDLP amendment was defeated by 78 votes to 13 and the main motion was carried by cross-community consent.