Labour needs to press ahead with devolution

The former Labour spokesperson on Northern Ireland, Kevin McNamara, argues that Labour should set a target to complete the process of devolution in the next term

Labour's election manifesto was unduly modest on the achievements of the Good Friday agreement and virtually silent on our ambition for the new term. In Northern Ireland uncertainty and destabilisation are perilous. The price of political vacuum is paid in sectarian violence and dissident bombings; pro-agreement parties are frustrated, the anti-agreement vote is boosted.

However, the transformation will not be allowed to unravel. Government will not return to Whitehall. The Labour government is not neutral.

The cabinet and whole Labour Party are aware of their share of responsibility to see this process through.

The Belfast agreement embodied all hope in 1998. It remains our central pillar. If the new government is to assist parties in moving beyond the stop-go crisis cycle, it needs to reset its sights. Our wider vision must focus on making the peace permanent; on consolidating the new institutions and extending the cross-community consensus around new objectives.

Parties should be clear that even the initiation of a formal review will not put the clock back Year Zero. In this scenario, settlement of immediate issues must be addressed in the context of what can be achieved in the next four years.

The goal of the British Labour government should be the completion of devolution.

This will require winning much broader cross-community support for the next tranche of reforms and safeguards in Northern Ireland. It will require a parallel process of reforms in the British and Irish states, a new and meaningful east-west relationship.

The responsibilities of the Northern Ireland secretary need adjusting. On political negotiation, we need the parties to take a greater sense of ownership. On confronting the internal obstacles to change -- in the civil service, Home Office, Ministry of Defence and army high command -- the minister needs to be far more hands on, possibly taking additional powers if necessary.

The principal legislative tasks for the next four to five years are already broadly set. These include:

  • completing the reforms envisaged in the Patten report on policing;

  • a Criminal Justice (NI) Bill extending equality provision and changing the ethos of the courts and prison systems -- ministers will also need to address the issue of discriminatory oaths and creation of a new independent prosecution service, and

  • reform of the no-jury Diplock courts and coroners' inquest systems.

Legislation will need to provide a sound basis for neighbourhood policing and restorative justice. Ministers must accept that while former prisoners have reintegrated into their own communities, they have yet to find an equivalent role and acceptance in society as a whole. Their participation in a partnership to confront drug crime and racketeering is essential if such an offensive is to be won.

Criminal justice, like policing, can only succeed with consent and the government has yet to engage all parties in this process.

The new government should, with the assistance of the international body:

  • aim to remove all weapons of fear from Northern Ireland within the lifetime of the parliament, and

  • assist the development of voluntarily weapon-free zones monitored by cross-community bodies -- leading to a review of all weaponry and the extension of Dunblane-style anti-gun legislation.

The army also has a major role to play in promoting reconciliation and should adopt a new mission statement to make that clear. While many recognise the sacrifice and heroism of individual soldiers, the army establishment has been an obstacle to progress.

Its resistance to the Bloody Sunday inquiry, its open support for convicted murderers in the Scots Guards and its cover up for dirty tricks and collusion have all undermined the rule of law and discredited good soldiers.

The ultimate aim of disbandment of the paramilitary organisations will require grasping the nettle of amnesty and and entail a thorough review of the Royal Irish Regiment.

Bill of Rights

The Northern Ireland executive has agreed to bring forward a single equality Bill to enhance the responsibilities of the unified Equality Commission. The Human Rights Commission has begun consultation on a draft Bill of Rights. This will need to give weight to post-agreement concepts such as parity of esteem, full participation and equal treatment of communities, and freedom from sectarian harassment.

Consolidation of such a framework of rights is a minimum requirement to create cross-community consensus to complete the devolution process.

The end point here is to create and transfer powers to a new department of justice responsible to the Northern Ireland assembly. The position of secretary of state could then become redundant.

Review of British role

The Northern Ireland Act, in providing the legal basis for post-agreement institutions, sets limits on devolution by scheduling a list of 'excepted matters' that remain in Crown or central government hands. These must now be subject to a thorough review.

The business community has already questioned the absence of tax-varying powers for the assembly. More could be done to harmonise rates of corporate taxation north and south. Presently, Northern Ireland has no competency in this area.

While criminal justice and policing may soon be devolved to Northern Ireland, choosing a judge remains a Crown prerogative.

Crown control also governs the honours system. In Northern Ireland communities are divided. If all sections are to be accorded parity of esteem, why should all honour emanate from the Crown?

As long as Northern Ireland remains a part of the United Kingdom, voters will be entitled to be represented in the Westminster parliament. Full and appropriate representation of Northern Ireland voters will require housekeeping changes including:

  • the introduction of PR;

  • further repeal of anti-Catholic legislation, and

  • the replacement of the requirement of elected members to make an oath to the British monarch by a more modern declaration.

Centre of excellence

Northern Ireland has achieved a great deal in a short period of time. Mo Mowlam's enthusiasm for political inclusiveness and community participation remains a lasting legacy.

Whatever obstacles remain, the political process has thrown up innovative mechanisms for democratic accountability.

A powerful ombudsman will replace internal investigation of police misconduct. Advanced systems are in place to mainstream equalities and equality duties. The government programme for targeting social need has been renewed and a new office of Children's Rights' Commissioner is to be created.

The programme for government adopted by the assembly is an exciting and inventive departure. It echoes many Labour themes, but it also sets out a vision based on "partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between north and south, and between these islands".

The new Labour government has a vital role to play in realising this vision.

August/September 2001

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-02-04 13:24:28.
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