Published Wednesday, 09 September 2009
Legislation passed in Westminster to enable devolution of security powers to the region does not have fallback position to keep the department running if local politicians fail to reach a settlement on a nomination process after an interim procedure lapses, according to Tony Cavanagh from the First and Deputy First Ministers' Office.
When and if the responsibilities are devolved to Stormont, the DUP and Sinn Fein have agreed a temporary arrangement to select the new Minister for Justice.
Both ruling parties have opted not to nominate a candidate from within their own ranks and have insisted whoever takes the role must have cross-community support within the Assembly.
This has left the Alliance Party as the likely holder of the portfolio first time round.
However, this appointment process is due expire in May, 2012.
Mr Cavanagh told members of the OFMDFM scrutiny committee that if the Assembly had not reached agreement on how to proceed after that date then the ministry would cease to exist.
"The Justice department is dissolved on 1st May, 2012 unless the Assembly has extended the process that has been set up or has produced legislation for a new form of appointment for the Justice minister," he said.
The official was responding to a question from committee member Alex Attwood (SDLP, West Belfast) who had asked what the default position was if no new appointment procedure had been implemented.
"So your understanding is that in 2012 - if there's devolution of justice before that date - in May 2012 unless there is agreement about another method going forward there is no Justice department?" he pressed Mr Cavanagh.
"The Justice department is dissolved," the official replied. "That's in the Westminster legislation."
Mr Cavanagh said there was an assumption the Assembly would have agreed a process by that date.
Mr Attwood said assuming events would take place was no way to create laws.
"Parliamentary draftsmen don't draft legislation on the basis of hoping something will happen by 2012," he said.
The SDLP representative said he was sure there had to be some form of default position "buried" within the legislation and asked the official to clarify the position.
The Assembly is to debate its own version of the Westminster legislation in the coming weeks.
The laws will provide the legal framework for devolution to take place when and if the First and Deputy First Ministers set a date to do so.
While there are still outstanding issues regarding a suitable financial package from the Treasury to accompany the move, it is expected the powers will be transferred within six months.