New Justice Minister Naomi Long talks to David Whelan about her priorities upon taking up the role and the reforms which she hopes to instigate to produce better outcomes.
Settling into her latest high-profile role in public office, new Justice Minister Naomi Long admits that she has had to hit the ground running in order to progress necessary reforms within the justice system.
While Northern Ireland had been without Executive ministers for over three years, work by officials in the Department has been ongoing and Long points to this as her starting point in taking up the new portfolio.
“The first thing was to take a read out of what the Department had been working on over the past number of years to assess the priorities in terms of public demand for progress,” she explains. “Also, though, to weigh those up against my own priorities and what I want to achieve.”
Long is no stranger to adapting quickly to a new brief. The Alliance Party leader, as recently as May 2019, was elected as an MEP to Brussels before Brexit saw her co-opted back into the reformed Assembly. Her broad political career has also spanned Westminster as an MP and as Lord Mayor of Belfast at local government level.
Long believes that her job has been made somewhat easier by the direction of travel established by her predecessors. David Ford, her former party leader and long-term colleague was the Executive’s first Minister for Justice from 2010 to 2016 and “left the department pointing in a particular direction”. Claire Sugden, a minister for just 10 months before the Executive’s collapse in 2017, didn’t hugely deviate from that direction, says Long.
However, she also recognises the challenges associated with actually implementing the prescribed necessary change. Long puts a strong emphasis on the capability of early intervention work in effecting changes throughout the whole system.
“Our commitment is to try to build a safer, shared society and one where people feel that when they come in to contact with the justice system, that it actually produces outcomes that are beneficial,” states Long. “However, we want to ensure, where possible, that people don’t have to come in to negative contact with the justice system. Early interventions, through a collaborative approach is something that I would want to mark the next two years.”
Long points to the commitment to a “different type of Executive” under the New Decade, New Approach deal, inclusive of all the main parties, as a solid basis for building cross-cutting policy to deliver better outcomes via early intervention.
Early interventions, through a collaborative approach is something that I would want to mark the next two years.
“It’s about working through all of those different departments to assess what contribution each of us can make to the priorities within the Department of Justice and what contribution the Department can make in delivering on other departments’ objectives. That’s where I think the new Executive can do things differently. The Programme for Government was seen as being cross-cutting and was meant to enhance collaboration but when you only have two parties in the Executive you don’t get to see whether that’s functional or not.
“I think there are real opportunities now for us to show that it’s not simply about getting an Executive up and running and people back into the Assembly but it’s also about what we can achieve and deliver. I want to focus on delivery in this two-year period.”
To some degree, some of Long’s priorities are predetermined. New Decade, New Approach set out commitments to increase police numbers by 600 officers and the delivery of committal reform. The Minister is quick to point out that rather than being imposed, the ambitions were part of a wider discussion which the parties fed in to. However, she suggests that implementing these ambitions could be more challenging than the public expects.
“Whilst New Decade, New Approach is an agreed set of objectives, it doesn’t come funded so there is still a lot of negotiation to be done. For example, when it comes to policing, we know that the Chief Constable has made a bid for additional officers to enable a re-focus of energy around community policing. We recognise how important this is to build confidence in policing and develop good community support but what we now need to do is look at how we fund that to reach those targets.”
Stressing that the Department will need to balance its priorities against “undoubtedly tight budgets”, Long confirms that the additional officers outlined in New Decade, New Approach are not guaranteed.
“There has to be a business case made around that and it will obviously depend on funding. Operationally, it is for the Chief Constable to decide where his priorities within policing are and he needs to come up with his own set of priorities around where he wants to focus and then the Department will work with him and the Department of Finance to try to facilitate that.
“It is important that we don’t raise expectations beyond what is practical. Even if the money was available, I don’t think we could recruit, train and deploy 600 officers in that short period of time. So, there will be a run-in period for this that will take longer than the current mandate and I think everyone appreciates that.”
Policing takes up around 70 per cent of the Department’s budget and in recent years the Department has fallen down the hierarchy of budget allocation priority, when competing against the like of health and education. Since devolution of justice in 2010, the Department’s budget has reduced by 11 per cent, which Long suggests gives an idea of “the level of squeeze” there has been around departmental budgets.
However, Long hopes to create greater awareness of her Department’s wider potential socio-economic impact. Using the example of drug dependency and substance abuse often being viewed as a health issue, Long stresses that the costs of dealing with these issues are often as much met by the justice system as the health system.
“By working together and finding early interventions we can deflect people away from negative interaction with the justice system, which is an expensive outcome. We already know the people who are at risk and who should be targeted at an earlier stage. By working across the departments to do this we can divert people away, not just from costing the system a lot of money but actually allowing them to live productive lives and make a positive contribution,” she says.
Long describes a balancing act of funding those necessary frontline services and transformation work which is often away from the public eye, such as committal reform.
“I think it’s really important that we don’t only focus on continuing to fund services as they stand. We need to look at change for greater efficiency, effectiveness and which ultimately delivers better outcomes.”
How we deal with the past influences how people view the present and so it’s very important for me that we ensure that in dealing with legacy we separate that out from our modern day policing and that we don’t conflate the two.
While many of the changes envisaged by the Minister will require a long-term approach, Long has also sought to take actions where more immediate change is possible. One such change was the recent decision to take legislation to combat domestic abuse in Northern Ireland through the Assembly rather than allow Northern Ireland to be included in new Westminster legislation covering England and Wales.
The decision proved somewhat controversial as it will likely experience a greater delay in implementing that law than if pursued through Westminster.
Explaining her decision, Long suggests that taking it was not easy and required much deliberation but, ultimately, she believes it was the correct one and is confident it can be done properly and expediently.
“Having listened to the Justice Committee and service deliverers at the front face of this, I felt it was important that people here in Northern Ireland had the opportunity to shape the discussion as we take the legislation forward,” she adds.
The Justice Minister emphasises the benefits of reducing the barriers for people to input into the legislation, by not having to travel to London, and also to feel ownership of legislation. She also points to a greater control of the legislative timetable, highlighting that the Bill has twice been delayed in Westminster due to disruption.
Also, by bringing the legislation through the Assembly, there is an opportunity to incorporate additional measures into a bill, such as an aggravated offence where children are involved, which would not have been dealt with through Westminster.
“I also think it is important that where there is an Assembly and it is a legislative Assembly, that we do legislate for ourselves and that we show that we can make positive change,” she adds. The last three years have had a real impact on people’s levels of confidence and levels of respect for the political system. I think the work of the Assembly is hugely important but we have to demonstrate that in tangible ways to the public.
“Demonstrating that a minister can bring legislation forward, that a committee can work to shape that, not in isolation but with the public, to make a difference to their lives, is important.”
Long is also looking to progress stalking legislation following on from a number of high-profile cases in Northern Ireland in recent months. The Department of Justice conducted a review on the necessity for Northern Ireland specific stalking legislation in 2016 and in 2018 held a public consultation, where it was recommended that a specific offense for stalking be created. Tied with this was the creation of stalking protection orders, which moves the responsibility for taking those orders to the police, reducing that cost and barriers to the victim.
However, Long stresses that equally important to bringing forward the correct legislation is the ongoing work to assess best practice and, alongside key stakeholders and service deliverers, to ensure that as well as changing the law “we can change the culture of how stalking is approached”.
“It’s about getting the balance between having the correct legislation in place but also ensuring that victims are properly supported and that those working within the justice system are fully aware of the significant implications of the continuum of incidents that are going on in a stalking case,” states Long.
Turning to a personal priority, the Minister says that she is concerned about the continued presence of paramilitarism within Northern Ireland’s communities and welcomes renewed focus on the issue in New Decade, New Approach. The 2015 Fresh Start Agreement set out the Executive’s commitment to tackling paramilitary activity and associated criminality. In 2016, the Executive published an action plan, commitments of which are being delivered by Executive departments, including the Department of Justice. Long says that the Department is currently working to “re-energise” those commitments beyond phase one and establish a roadmap for the years ahead, to ensure that people feel confident and safe in their communities.
The Justice Minister hopes to bring a paper to the Executive in the near
future to ensure buy-in from all departments and introduce a proactive approach to an objective which has been committed to.
“I believe it’s fundamental that we deal with paramilitarism. There is a continuum here in that it is often the same people involved in paramilitarism and organised crime, at different times. So, by tackling one, we recognise that we’re helping to reinforce that we’re working on the other,” she says.
Amidst the many forward-looking priorities of the Department in terms of budget balancing also sits the often divisive issue of legacy. New Decade, New Approach set out a pledge to introduce legislation to implement a legacy deal struck under the Stormont House Agreement, within 100 days, including an Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) to look into Troubles killings.
Long admits that there are “massive questions” around how legacy will be funded and the potential for significant pressure on the Department. However, she is adamant that it is not a responsibility that can be shirked.
“I fundamentally believe it is not something we can escape doing,” she states. “We need to deal with legacy because I think it has an impact on people’s sense of current justice and policing.
“How we deal with the past influences how people view the present and so it’s very important for me that we ensure that in dealing with legacy we separate that out from our modern day policing and that we don’t conflate the two.”
In early February, Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster said that the Stormont House Agreement needed revisited, following a letter to the then Secretary of State Julian Smith which raised a number of concerns ahead of legislation being tabled at Westminster. In contrast, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill called for the implementation of the Agreement in full, stressing that mechanisms cannot be cherrypicked.
While Long acknowledges a difference of opinion amongst parties, she says: “I think that the Stormont House Agreement, which all parties bought in to around legacy issues, provides the best vehicle available. There are obviously a range of opinions and no one is going to say that it is perfect but I think realistically it is the first time that we had five parties on the same page and we’re unlikely to get that again.
“Time is passing for many of these cases and as it does, they become harder to resolve. We’re committed to delivering the HIU once the legislation is in place to do it.”
The Minister admits that the HIU alone won’t deal with all legacy issues and points to work done under the Police Ombudsman’s office, high-profile investigations relating to the Troubles being undertaken by Jon Boutcher, former Chief of Bedfordshire Police, and increasing historic litigation as evidence of the complexity of dealing with the past.
“Managing all of that is quite complex and is expensive and so we’re scoping out the degree to which legislation is likely to be the one that hits,” she concludes.