Friday, 21 August 2009

An advert for devolved justice?

There are a series of problematic value judgements which the facts of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi’s release raise. Is it right to show mercy to a dying man, even if he has perpetrated a heinous crime? If there is a doubt about the safety of his conviction, does it justify his case being treated differently? How far should the hurt which victims have experienced be taken into account where mercy can be shown, or denied?

These are difficult questions, involving slippery moral concepts which will be endlessly debated. Lengthy works of philosophy, or novels, are suitable media to consider such material carefully (although Hernandez is one of many having a go on blogs and columns).

Rather than encroach on the territory outlined above, I propose to discuss (briefly) two issues (which I will divide between two posts) arising from the decision (and its announcement), which are, I suppose, tangential to the points I made about the SNP’s style of presentation, last night. Firstly, from a purely parochial point of view, what are we in Northern Ireland to make of the spectacle of a devolved justice ministry, caught in international headlamps? After all, if the Scottish executive seems overwhelmed by its responsibilities, what are the chances that locally directed policing and justice will result in improved functions here? Secondly, what does the episode tell us about devolution, its relationships, its dynamics and its future?

Clearly, the first issue deserves briefer treatment than the second. Mick Fealty provides a useful synopsis of the current situation, as regards policing and justice, in Northern Ireland, on a post on Slugger. He highlights real concerns that the executive’s performance, thus far, does not justify entrusting it with further responsibilities. The Libyan episode graphically demonstrates the complexity which justice matters can involve and their capacity to assume an international dimension.

Whether, as opposition politicians have alleged, the Scottish 'government' provided convenient cover for a Westminster administration keen to develop its relationship with Tripoli, or whether the SNP was eager to assert its independence, this was a matter which transcended the regional to encompass the national and the international. Yet it remained solidly within the remit of a parochial nationalist politician who embarrassed himself, and his country, by delivering a statement, more focussed on lauding the virtues of a ‘people’, than addressing matters pertinent to the case.

Whatever the effects of so called ‘Scottish cringe’, the Justice Minister’s statement should have caused his ‘people’ severe embarrassment. His performance will sustain those who believe that an early devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland could result in confusion, incompetence and humiliation. I do not wish to suggest that successfully reaching a major decision, with international repercussions, is beyond the abilities of Scottish or Northern Irish politicians. Just that the responsibility ranges well beyond the parish pump preoccupations of many of them, including the SNP.


Gary said...

Indeed, hypothetically, Justice is devolved in NI. Down the line there is a Sinn Fein minister in charge. A terrorist from ETA/IRA gets arrested and imprisoned in NI for murdering hundreds of people. Sinn Fein lets them out on compassionate grounds.........

Kevinho said...

I would argue that this is not about the powers but what you do with them. Just because the SNP made themselves look weak on this occasion doesn't meant that they wouldn't have on others, or that Labour or any other 'government' would have.

Scotland has always had a separate legal system from the rest of the UK, and I suspect that before devolution such a decision would have fallen to the Lord Advocate. I would argue that despite this episode Scottish justice is still best left devolved. NI of course is its own kettle of fish and not really comparable.

I've always had my doubts about politicians being able to interfere in specific cases, regardless of the jurisdiction, but that's a different discussion.

Chekov said...

Kev - I believe that's a matter of dispute, but the BBC is suggesting (and I imagine they've checked with legal sources) that pre-devolution the Home Secretary would have made the decision (see Nick Robinson's blog). Clearly justice will stay devolved where it's devolved already. You will note on the post two below this that I acknowledge existing devolution cannot be rolled back. That means when reserved functions are devolved there's a greater responsibility to examine possible consequences.

Pikie said...
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