[The following motion was presented at the Alliance Party Conference, proposed by Stephen Farry MLA and seconded by Chris Lyttle.]
- Conference reiterates its support for the devolution of policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland, in particular to improve accountability and to provide new opportunities for joined-up government.
- Conference calls upon the Executive and a future Department of Justice to work to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system in matters such as the speed of justice, dealing with victims and witnesses, managing offenders and the prevention of offending.
- Conference further calls on any new Department to support efforts to build a shared future.
Speech by Stephen Farry MLA:Conference, we are all acutely aware of the importance of a deal around policing and justice. It is a vital step in creating the opportunity for stability — a necessary but by itself not sufficient move for progressive change in our society. This motion is not about the high politics of the current crisis. It is not about which party or which person should be Minister for Justice. It is rather about delivery — the delivery of real and tangible change for the people of Northern Ireland. Alliance has stressed that there is sufficient confidence for devolution today. But that said, conference is not just something that is built up before devolution, it is also something that comes after devolution through the right policies being delivered. It is for this reason that the Alliance Party has been so focused on the importance of getting cross-party agreement on a policy programme in advance of devolution. For us, policy has always come before personality. There is a good news story to be told. Crime levels in Northern Ireland, while troubling, are relatively low. Many of our criminal justice institutions and structures have been modernised. Our police service is professional and the most accountable in the world. Human rights considerations are wired into our system. Our approach to youth justice is a world leader. Yet, there are considerable problems to be tackled. Our system is very inefficient and costly. Prison places per head are twice as expensive as the rest of the UK. Our speed of justice is very slow and avoidable delays high. The needs of victims and witnesses are not adequately addressed. Confidence in the system stands to be improved. People are asking what difference devolution can make? The answer is a lot. Devolution means that the power over policy making and the allocation of resources falls into local and accountable hands. There are many challenges to be addressed. But from these challenges arise new opportunities. The financial pressures are considerable. Don’t be fooled by the presence of a generous financial package. This only deals with the costs of the past. Justice of the future will have to compete with health and education for scarce resources. Therefore, we must do things better. We must do things smarter. First, we must view the criminal justice system as a system. What happens in one aspect can have repercussions elsewhere. For instance, the speed of justice affects the number of prisoners on remand, and what happens in the prisons in terms of rehabilitation can have a major influence over levels of reoffending. Second, we must support the police in ensuring that resources are used to support visible policing. Third, greater emphasis needs to be placed on early intervention and prevention. This means working to reduce levels of offending and anti-social behaviour at source. The achievement of this objective requires much broader co-operation between agencies and local community planning. Fourth, we must find more effective ways of dealing with offenders. Prison is not always the answer. Sometimes action in the community can be more effective. But when in prison, greater emphais needs to be placed on rehabilitation than just security. Virtually everyone that goes into prison will one day be released, and returned to the community. This is not about being soft on criminals. Far from it — it is about doing what works. It is about following the evidence. Some people may want to judge the effectiveness of the criminal justice system based on how many people are locked up. For Alliance, it is about reducing offending, and letting people feel safe in their homes and on the streets. Devolution also creates the opportunities for joined-up government. This means a Department of Justice can work with Health and Social Development over alcohol issues. Justice can collaborate with Education and Housing over reasons for offending, and with Employment and Learning over resettling offenders. Justice can serve as a partner to Culture, Arts and Leisure over spectator sporting offences. And perhaps most critically, Justice can engage with all other Departments in helping to create a shared future, through helping to provide the confidence and security to remove the physical manifestation of division such as so-called ‘peace walls’ and protecting efforts at sharing. As in so many respects, a clear policy on good relations and building a shared future is a necessity.