The decision of the Northern Ireland Assembly to agree to the devolution of policing and justice powers will build on the gains of the peace process, the British and Irish governments said today.
Police Chief Matt Baggott also welcomed today’s vote on the transfer of the powers from Westminster, which was secured despite opposition from the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).
The move underpins the Hillsborough Agreement brokered between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin to stabilise the region’s power-sharing government.
The Assembly decision followed an acrimonious debate in which Ulster Unionists resisted pressure to support the move.
The vote will lead to the creation of a Department of Justice for Northern Ireland after the powers are devolved by April 12.
Out of the 105 votes cast, a total of 88 were in support of the move – only the UUP voted against.
In a joint statement British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Taoiseach Brian Cowen said: “This is a significant step forward for the people of Northern Ireland, with overwhelming support from all sections of the community.
“It sends a clear message of confidence in the future, and commitment to build on the gains of the peace process that have been achieved over the last 12 years.
“We congratulate all those who contributed to this important decision.
“We look forward to the completion of the devolution of policing and justice powers on 12 April. For its part, the British Government will now introduce the necessary transfer orders in Westminster to facilitate this timetable.”
The Hillsborough Castle deal, signed after nearly two weeks of round-the-clock talks at the Co Down venue last month, promised delivery of the republican demand for the devolution of policing and justice powers, plus the unionist call for the creation of new systems to oversee loyal order parades.
The agreement was aimed at providing greater stability to the power-sharing administration, avoiding a threatened collapse of the institutions after a lengthy political stand-off on the devolution issue.
The UUP was accused of electioneering over the deal in a bid to put its unionist rivals, the DUP, under pressure, though the party strenuously denied the allegation.
During the Assembly debate, the Democratic Unionist leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson attacked the UUP.
“I believe it is time for us all to move forward. There must be no going back to the bad old days of the past,” he said.
“Throughout history there are times of challenge and defining moments. This is such a time. This is such a moment.”
Mr Robinson added: “Leadership is not about what’s easiest, or what best suits our party interests, it is about doing what is right for our people.”
The UUP claimed the ministerial Executive must sort out other outstanding matters – such as the long-standing row over post-primary school transfer arrangements – before it can take on law and order functions.
Its leader Reg Empey said: “I am immensely proud of the sacrifices my party has made for the cause of peace. Our determination to make Stormont work for all the people of Northern Ireland – unionists, nationalists, all of us - continues.
“Our whole-hearted support for the brave men and women of the PSNI continues unabated.”
Empey added: “As a democratic political party pledged to making power-sharing work in an inclusive manner for all the people of Northern Ireland, we exercise our rights, refusing to bow to the blackmail and bullying to which we have been subjected in recent weeks.”
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness questioned the logic of the UUP stance.
“The UUP are on record as stating that they will not support the election of a local minister to oversee the administration of policing and justice until there is agreement to test 10 and 11-year-old children to determine which school they will attend,” he said.
“I have to say that these are the most dysfunctional political positions I have ever come across.”
He added: “The Hillsborough Agreement provided an opportunity for a new start ... I acknowledge that this is a challenge to us all but it is one to which we all must rise.”
Secretary of State Shaun Woodward said: “It is a vote for the future of Northern Ireland in which the primacy of democratic politics has been overwhelmingly endorsed.”
Hours before the vote, the widow of a police officer murdered by dissident republicans made a dramatic plea for all politicians to back the deal.
Kate Carroll, whose husband Pc Stephen Carroll was shot dead by the Continuity IRA a year ago today, said all parties should support the plan.
In a surprise call to a radio show, she said: “This morning has been very, very hard for me, and I would just ask everyone in Stormont to please get on with their job.”
Mrs Carroll told the UUP: “I am pleading on this day that is so important to me that it’s not worth it. Life is too short. It is heartbreaking that I have to get on this morning to please ask the politicians to get on with their job.”
Northern Ireland Chief Constable Matt Baggott later said of the vote: “This can only help us achieve the peaceful society that we all want, and that we are all striving towards.”
The DUP and Sinn Féin had the strength in numbers to pass today’s measures, but the rejection from the UUP deprived them of the unanimous support they and the British and Irish governments had sought for the devolution deal.
Sinn Féin’s 28 Assembly members and the nationalist SDLP’s 16 backed the devolution plan. The Alliance Party’s seven members, together with the single Green Party member and an independent member also backed the move.
Over recent days the UUP came under international pressure to back the deal, with Conservative leader David Cameron confirming he was asked to intervene in the issue by former US president George Bush.
Mr Cameron, whose party is in an electoral pact with the UUP, said Conservatives had played the “most constructive role we possibly could as an Opposition” in relation to Northern Ireland.
But he added: “The one thing we cannot do is force people to vote a particular way.”