Despite the current political impasse in the North, there is still an opportunity to make the kinds of reforms that might actually help, in the end, unblock the logjam. This was clearly demonstrated by the publication last week of the Criminal Justice Review, undertaken as part of the Good Friday agreement.
Unlike the Patten commission, which was independent of any government agency, the review working group was made up of civil servants from the Northern Ireland office, plus five independent assessors. There were fears that this would emasculate any chance of real reform. As time went by, and publication of its findings was delayed, it seemed that such fears might have substance. However, the review has produced a report that is to be welcomed as a step in the direction of a fair and balanced application of the law.
Twice as long as the Patten report on policing, the review has recommended more than 300 changes to the way the law is administered in the North. Most important among them is the proposal to set up a new, independent prosecuting authority that would handle all criminal cases. This would take over the work at the moment handled by the police and the office of Director of Public Prosecutions.
Nationalists, supported by human rights lawyers, have long argued that the present arrangement gives the police too much say in when a case should or should not be prosecuted. This subjected the police to accusations that they were pursing some cases without the necessary evidence to bring them to court, or ignoring others where there seemed to be grounds for a prosecution but were politically embarrassing.
Among the other recommendations is one for the setting up of an independent committee to oversee the appointment of judges. At the moment this is the responsibility of the lord chief justice. The judicial ranks have long been dominated by the old-boy network of the Protestant legal establishment. The new committee, made up of lawyers and laymen, would be chosen by the Northern Ireland assembly and it is hope would help redress the imbalance currently in the number of Catholics who serve on the judicial benches.
The review has also suggested that the heavy, royal symbolism, along with some of the trappings of Crown domination, be watered down. This would mean that Crown symbols, while being left on the outside of the court buildings, would be removed from inside the court room itself. The declaration of "God Save The Queen" used at certain court hearings would be scrapped.
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The review also advocates much more cooperation between the criminal justice agencies in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
The recommendations have been generally welcomed, even by some Unionists. Of course, the anti-agreement faction has seen the review as yet another nail in the coffin of "British" Northern Ireland. But their more moderate colleagues have accepted the findings, for the most part, as fair.
Peace and justice have always been inextricably linked in the North. For years, even without any overt violence, the Nationalists grated against a judicial system that they viewed as fundamentally biased against them, so that the courts were seen as a kind of legal wing of Unionism. This resentment helped fuel the alienation of the North’s Catholics from the state, which in turn provided fertile recruiting grounds for the violence of the IRA. A circle was created when that violence, as it escalated, helped sustain a political and moral climate in which further acts of injustice were tolerated. The Criminal Justice Review’s recommendations would help break that cycle and if it is enacted by parliament should help ensure it will not reoccur.