Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 29 June 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Jimmy Spratt (Chairperson)
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Simon Hamilton
Mrs Carmel Hanna
Mr Danny Kennedy
Mr Alex Maskey
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Alan McFarland
Mr John O’Dowd

The Chairperson (Mr Spratt):

The first item on the agenda under matters arising is the Committee’s visit to Dublin last week. Raymond McCartney was going to present the report of that visit, but he has had to go to the Chamber. I will ask the Committee Clerk to present it. If any members who were there have any points to make, they can chip in.

The Committee Clerk:

Thank you, Chairperson. There were four meetings, and some of the points that were covered were covered in more than one meeting. In chronological order, the Committee delegation, on which all four parties were represented, met with the deputy to the Attorney General first of all.

The headlines of that meeting were as follows. The Attorney General is appointed by the Taoiseach. He attends Cabinet meetings, but he is not a member of the Government. He provides support and represents the Government in court cases and provides legal advice and legislative drafting expertise to Departments. Most of the advice given by the Attorney General’s office deals with constitutional matters, especially attacks on laws that conflict with the Constitution or the European Convention on Human Rights. The Attorney General expressly does not deal with criminal prosecutions; those are a matter for the director of public prosecutions. In connection with that, the director of public prosecutions is independent by statute and is not answerable to the Attorney General or to any Minister in Dáil Éireann.

Legislation does, however, provide for statutory consultation between the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). For reporting purposes, the Taoiseach answers for the Attorney General in Dáil Éireann. However, there is no relationship with the Justice, Equality and Law Reform Committee. The director general, who is the most senior civil servant in the Attorney General’s office, is responsible for publishing an annual report on matters relating to administration and finance, and would routinely expect to appear before the Committee of Public Accounts in relation to that office’s spending.

The second meeting was with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and was held at his express request. The ground covered in that session took the form of a situation report on the work of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee on the devolution of policing and justice matters. There was some discussion about parading, the dissident threat and areas of possible cross-border co-operation. The meeting then branched out into discussion about the Irish economy, which was not necessarily the remit of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee.

The Committee then met the Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights. The important message from that meeting was the re-emphasis on the independence of the justice system and that most of the Committee’s work was dedicated to the scrutiny of legislation.

The delegation met with the Justice Minister, Dermot Ahern, and the Garda Commissioner, Fachtna Murphy. That was a joint meeting, and the Minister made it very clear that he was responsible for policy and legislation. He acknowledged, and the Commissioner concurred, that the Commissioner was responsible for operational policing, including national security matters; that the Commissioner appears before the Committee of Public Accounts on the spending of his office and his organisation; and that the Minister and the Commissioner both have occasion to appear before the Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights However, it was pointed out that national security matters are not scrutinised by that Committee, but that there is a National Security Committee, the composition of which does not include political representatives.

The Justice Minister was keen to stress the independence of the DPP, and that was a recurring theme throughout all meetings. The Taoiseach’s office provides the line of funding for the DPP’s office. Finally, the Justice Minister identified the alignment of legislation between the two jurisdictions on the island as a significant matter and one that he imagined would come up, particularly if there was to be devolution of policing and justice powers.

The Chairperson:

Does anyone have anything to add to the report?

Mr McCausland:

What is meant by the “alignment of legislation”?

The Committee Clerk:

The Justice Minister did not elaborate on that. I think that he was pointing to the fact that there may be a need — in his view — for some alignment. That returns to a point raised, on which Mr Attwood may wish to comment, on the issue of the memorandum of understanding and the protocols relating to sex offenders and so on; matching them up to ensure continuity. Mr Ahern mentioned it in passing; I do not know whether Mr Attwood wants to elaborate on it.

The Chairperson:

Some issues have already been identified; particularly that of sex offenders. That is a very good example of where there needs to be co-operation on how sex offenders should be monitored, not only North/South, but in Europe and elsewhere. I thank the Committee Clerk for that report.

We move to discussion on the devolution of policing and justice. I declare an interest as a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

Mr McCausland:

I declare an interest as a member of Belfast District Policing Partnership.

Mr A Maskey:

I am a member of the Policing Board.

The Chairperson:

Before we go through the entire list of category 2 issues, has there been movement on any particular issue? I ask parties to indicate whether they want to raise any issue before we proceed?

Mr Hamilton:

My party does not have anything new or different to add.

Mr A Maskey:

My party does not wish to raise any new issue.

Mr Attwood:

We have nothing further.

The Chairperson:

OK. Well, that deals with that issue.

We are now moving into the summer recess, which runs from 4 July to 6 September 2009. The Business Committee is due to meet on 8 September to schedule business for the first plenary sitting after the recess, which will be on Monday 14 September. Unless there is movement on outstanding issues in category 2, I do not anticipate that we will meet before that. Earlier, I had a short discussion with the Deputy Chairperson on that matter. It is not normal that we would meet during the summer period. It is difficult to achieve a quorum because people are off on holiday, etc, at various times. Can we agree, however, that if there is urgent business, the Deputy Chairperson and I will liaise with the Committee Clerk’s office and will attempt to schedule a meeting at short notice at a time that suits members? Is that agreed?

Mr Attwood:

Now that we are in public session, I am not sure how much I can say. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister indicated where they are in their process, and that there might be developments on one matter that would enable them to move to another.

The Chairperson:

Any further meeting would be held on that basis. Just be aware that that part of the meeting was confidential. Be careful what you say about the discussion that we had with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. It is on that basis that the Deputy Chairperson and I — obviously, with the assistance of the Committee Clerk’s office — will contact members if there are developments during the summer recess. That is one issue on which I would wish to bring the Committee together at the earliest available opportunity.

Mr Attwood:

That is fine. My point is that there is a range of issues that the Committee has not resolved. Those are issues that could contribute to the successful outcome of any process. However, the Assembly cannot decide on them. Therefore, in the absence of decisions being made by either the Committee or the Assembly, it seems that even OFMDFM’s best intentions might come up short. Action cannot be taken because the Assembly has not agreed on what those matters might be.

The Chairperson:

I assume that their intention would be to bring those matters before the Assembly. I assume that the Committee would have discussions and an input into that.

Mr McFarland:

As we said last week, if the First Minister and the deputy First Minister agree on an issue, their parties have the ability to push it through the Assembly. Short of rebellion by the two big parties involved, if they agree, the Assembly will agree because that is the way that things are at present. Agreement is not needed from parties other than the two big parties. They indicated that they might have consultation with the rest of us. Hopefully, that will take place. However, my guess is that nothing will progress until those two parties have made a decision.

The Chairperson:

Let us get back to the subject of discussion. If such matters are brought to the Deputy Chairperson’s attention and mine, we will call a meeting. I am seeking agreement on that. Is that agreed?

Members indicated assent.

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