Now that it is the issue upon which all other issues rest, we really ought to take a closer look at the popular phrase:
"Devolution of policing and justice powers." Unionists and republicans alike agree that this will be a step of critical importance so much so, in fact, that the exact mechanism for appointing a policing and justice minister has dominated recent negotiations. But exactly what mechanisms will be available to that minister after his appointment? Secret deals notwithstanding, the best available guide is the February 2006 NIO discussion paper 'Devolving
Policing and Justice in Northern Ireland', published in conjunction with the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which enables the secretary of state to transfer policing and justice powers to the assembly.
The paper states that a new Stormont department should have responsibility for the entire legal system, from the courts to the creation of offences, which is what Sinn Féin and the DUP both claim to want.
The powers on offer are generous and juicy with surprisingly little held back. However, there is one glaring exception. Stormont will still have no effective say over the Public Prosecution Service.
The PPS is responsible for bringing criminal cases to court and for objecting to bail, making it London's preferred means of political interference. Awkward cases can be dropped after the police have finished with them but before the courts ever get to them. Awkward individuals can be freed immediately while an excuse to drop their case is figured out. If an excuse can't be figured out, PPS director Sir Alasdair Fraser simply mutters the magic words "public interest" and pulls the plug regardless. The PPS can also stall any inquiry which recommends criminal charges it has now been sitting on the police ombudsman's report into the UVF informer scandal for over a year. The only recourse for those denied justice is an appeal to Sir Alasdair's boss, attorney general Lord Goldsmith, who attends cabinet meetings.
Last November, when asked about the investigation into Saudi arms bribes, his Lordship said: "I would not stop a prosecution on political grounds." One month later he stopped the investigation, claiming that: "the wider public interest outweighs the need to maintain the rule of law." So in fact the attorney general simply does what he's told and his minions in Belfast are equally suggestible.
Stormontgate, the attempted murder of UVF informer Mark Haddock and the UDA's bail-bouncing brigadiers all prove this beyond question. Stormontgate was dropped on the day that Queen Elizabeth and President McAleese met in Belfast a classic New Labour diversionary tactic. The case against Mark Haddock's assailants was dropped when the victim withdrew his complaint, although the PPS was able and obliged to bring charges itself.
When a judge asked why Ihab Shoukri was granted bail after breaching his conditions, the PPS lawyer replied: "There are certain things I am not at liberty to go into at the moment." Shoukri's trial was subsequently cancelled three times. His brother Andre was also repeatedly released on bail, enabling him to meet Tony Blair's chief of staff Jonathan Powell to discuss a £30 million arms bribe, albeit not one involving Saudi Arabia.
The laughably obvious list of PPS political manipulation goes on and on. So how does the government intend to reform this rotten system? The discussion paper proposes that Stormont's first minister and deputy first minister should appoint a new attorney general for Northern Ireland, who will in turn appoint the director of the PPS. But the paper adds: "The attorney general NI will have no power of direction or superintendence over the PPS, whether in individual cases or on matters of policy."
That power won't go to Stormont either.
The next paragraph says: "The director will not be required to answer to the assembly except in relation to finance and administration." There is no PPS oversight role whatsoever for the much-debated policing and justice minister. The government claims that this is all essential to retain "the independence and impartiality of the prosecution system". However, that system is now so discredited that proactive, rather than passive, measures on accountability are clearly required. If our new attorney general doesn't control the PPS and our elected politicians can only query the director's budget, then it is still safe to assume that a phone can be lifted in London and a case can be dropped in Belfast as ongoing appeasement requires.
Or is that what Sinn Féin and the DUP want as well?