Belfast Telegraph

Disagreement at heart of Executive on 'how to respond to top judge's critique'

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

There is fundamental disagreement at the heart of Northern Ireland's power-sharing Executive over how to respond to a judge's criticism, the Assembly has been told.

It is eight months since the Lord Chief Justice wrote to the First and Deputy First Ministers outlining concerns about remarks by the Health Minister on gay blood donations, but, Sir Declan Morgan has yet to receive a reply.

During Question Time at the Assembly Martin McGuinness attributed the delay to the opposing views held by Stormont's political leaders.

He said: "It is no secret to anybody that the First Minister and I would have a different view of the remarks made by Minister Poots.

"My sympathy is totally and absolutely with Sir Declan Morgan and I think the sooner the matter is resolved the better."

Last year DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots lost a judicial challenge to his ban on blood donations by gay men and inferred he would not get a fair hearing from a court should he appeal against the decision.

During a Stormont debate on the issue in November Mr Poots said: "The question is this: will I appeal it? I am very reluctant to appeal it. Number one, it gives the larger parties in the Executive considerably more power.

"Number two, it refers a lot of governance back to the national Parliament and, as a unionist, should I be that concerned about that?

"Number three, do I believe that I would get fairness in the Court of Appeal or would there be a circling of the wagons? I am concerned that that may not be the case."

In a letter to OFMDFM, Sir Declan Morgan, who is head of Northern Ireland's judiciary, said the comments had been "detrimental" to the rule of law.

Sir Declan said: "This is an unfortunate and fairly isolated incident but is not a small matter of little consequence.

"Our democracy depends on upholding the rule of law and on mutual respect between the Government and the judiciary.

"I have made conscious efforts to engage in a positive way with the Executive and I have no wish to become embroiled in an unhelpful debate but I would have been failing in my duty if I had not written to the ministers to express concern over a lack of political regard for independent judicial decision making."

Mr McGuinness said discussions on an agreed response to the judge's letter were still ongoing.

He added: "We are involved in discussions at the moment in an effort to try and get an agreed response to what Sir Declan has said."

The ban on gay men donating was lifted in England, Scotland and Wales in 2011 and replaced with rules that allow them to give blood after a one-year deferral - ie 12 months since their last sexual encounter with another man.

But Mr Poots has kept the lifetime deferral in operation in Northern Ireland, citing "blood safety" issues.

Responding to a question from SDLP MLA Karen McKevitt, the Deputy First Minister said he would also consider submitting a letter on the issue to the Assembly library.

A spokesman for the DUP claimed Peter Robinson had drafted a reply letter, which had not be signed off by Mr McGuinness.

"Contrary to the suggestion that the First Minister had been unwilling to agree a response to the Lord Chief Justice, it is important that the record is set clear," he said.

"At no point has the Deputy First Minister suggested or proposed a letter in response to the Lord Chief Justice.

"At the First Minister's request, a letter was drafted in reply to the Lord Chief Justice in February 2014 indicating support for the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law in Northern Ireland and the importance that no minister should say anything that would undermine that fundamental principle.

"That draft was shared with the Deputy First Minister's office but they have to date been unwilling to sign it.

"It should be added that at no point have they provided an alternative draft or suggested any amendments to the First Minister's draft.

"Indeed, the only suggested response was the one drafted on the First Minister's behalf. If the Deputy First Minister is content, the First Minister would be happy to share the full contents of that letter."

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