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The Hillsborough Castle Agreement

After one of the longest negotiations in the history of the peace process, Sinn Féin and the DUP have concluded an agreement which should see devolution of justice and policing by 12 April.

The new justice minister is expected to come from the cross-community Alliance Party, in an arrangement designed to keep the sensitive portfolio out of unionist or nationalist hands.

This ad-hoc settlement still leaves open the allocation of the post after the assembly election due in 2011. It is likely that the largest party to emerge from that poll will have to choose either the justice or finance ministries, leaving one of them to a rival party. Given that Sinn Féin is very likely to remain one of the key players, that leaves more scope for unionist angst down the line.

In the meantime, Alliance's role will raise its political profile and give the executive some political cover against the charge that it represents a coalition of the extremes.

The SDLP and the UUP are being offered the leadership of a working group to deal with the backlog of executive business.  However, both parties remain in an uncomfortable situation within an executive dominated by their larger rivals.

The SDLP has been arguing that under the D'Hondt mechanism contained in the Good Friday Agreement it is entitled to the justice ministry while the UUP have today refused to attend a roundtable meeting with the British and Irish Prime Ministers because it has not had sight of the agreement.

On the key issue of Orange parades, there will be a working group which will report on 23 February. That could be a sticking point but much of the groundwork may already have been done. Having reached agreement on the major question of policing and justice, it will surely be more difficult for the DUP to walk away on an issue of narrower interest even within the unionist community.

Sinn Féin has been in a hurry to get devolution of justice before the Westminster election, but allowed negotiations to run on a week past the date at which they had been expected to walk away. The DUP wobbled at the start of the week, with only a slim majority of its assembly members backing a deal on the basis of what was on the table then. That agreement was nevertheless reached underlines the extent to which both parties need a functioning executive to remain relevant.  

The DUP/Sinn Féin-led executive has shown itself to be more resilient than its UUP/SDLP-led predecessor. It now needs to show that it is itself relevant to tackling some of the practical problems which have been on hold while the politicians were otherwise engaged. 

About the author

Tom Griffin is freelance journalist and researcher. He holds a Ph.D in social and policy sciences from the University of Bath, and is a former Executive Editor of the Irish World.

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