All Ulster courts may lose symbols of British crown

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The Independent Online

Far-reaching changes to the criminal justice system were recommended yesterday in a report commissioned as part of the Good Friday Agreement's proposed new constitutional architecture for Northern Ireland.

Far-reaching changes to the criminal justice system were recommended yesterday in a report commissioned as part of the Good Friday Agreement's proposed new constitutional architecture for Northern Ireland.

Its suggestions include a new independent commission to appoint judges, the transfer of prosecution functions from the RUC to a new independent service and the removal of British symbols from courtrooms.

The report's 300 recommendations amount to a thorough overhaul of the legal system, though it did not strike a noticeably radical tone and often leant towards caution rather than innovation.

Anti-Good Friday Unionists instantly incorporated its contents into their argument that the fruits of the accord are continuing to erode the British connection and the Unionist ethos.

The Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson said: "Publication of this new report with its bias towards republicans is just going to undermine Unionist confidence further. It could be extremely damaging at this very sensitive time. Most Unionists will view these as yet further concessions to republicans."

Nigel Dodds, of the Democratic Unionists, described it as "yet another attack on the British culture and ethos in Northern Ireland, yet more appeasement of an insatiable nationalist appetite to destroy every vestige of the majority community's identity." On the other hand, the Ulster Unionist Duncan Shipley-Dalton, who is reportedly close to the party leader, David Trimble, responded: "We have yet to study it in detail but hope it candeliver the support of both communities and the speedy and effective prosecution ofoffenders."

The nationalist SDLP said it was not the giant leap forward the party had hoped for, but could be a big step if it was quickly implemented with some changes.

The Committee on the Administration of Justice, the Belfast-based human rights group, welcomed the new public prosecution service but expressed concern that the report would take some time to implement. Apart from the six-month consultation period that begins now, many of its key recommendations are linkedto the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland, a development that looks less likely in the foreseeablefuture.

The Government will be relieved that the attacks on the report from anti-agreement Unionists rose little above the level of ritual condemnation. The anti-accord camp is reckoned to be in the ascendant at the moment, with the prospect of increasing its support when the Patten report on policing is given legislative form in the next few months.

The report attempted to strike a balance on the contentious issue of emblems and symbols in courts, recommending the removal of symbols from courtrooms and an end to the practice in some courts of declaring "God save the Queen" when judges enter.

On the other hand, it suggested that the Union Jack should continue to fly over courthouses, and that the Royal Court of Arms should continue to be displayed on theirexteriors.

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