Belfast Telegraph

Edwin Poots 'influenced by religious beliefs' in banning blood from gay men, court hears

High Court to decide ruling that former Health minister was biased in decision

By Alan Erwin

Former Health Minister Edwin Poots' ban on gay men giving blood in Northern Ireland was influenced by his religious beliefs, the High Court heard today.

Lawyers for a homosexual man claimed Assembly comments by the Democratic Unionist MLA show he wrongly allowed his Christian morals to impact on his stance.

They are now seeking a ruling that Mr Poots displayed apparent bias in maintaining the lifetime prohibition on gay donations.

Even though a judge has already held that the ban is irrational, he reached no conclusion on allegations that the decision was prejudiced by religious views.

Prior to departing from office Mr Poots launched an appeal against the verdict. British Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is also contesting the ruling.

But the gay man who brought the original challenge, identified only as JR65, still wants a finding of apparent bias to be made.

Before the appeal can be heard the case has been referred back to Mr Justice Treacy to make a determination on that point.

The gay blood ban, put in place during the 1980s AIDS threat, was lifted in England, Scotland and Wales in November 2011.

It was replaced by new rules which allow blood from men whose last sexual contact with another man was more than a year ago.

But Mr Poots maintained the prohibition in Northern Ireland on the basis of ensuring public safety.

In October 2013 Mr Justice Treacy ruled that his position on donations from men who have had sex with men deviated from the rest of the UK.

He found the decision was irrational and declared Mr Poots in breach of the ministerial code by failing to take the issue before the Stormont Executive.

Counsel for the former Minister has consistently rejected claims that his position may have been influenced by religious views.

The decision was based solely on health grounds, it was stressed.

But JR65's legal team now want to be allowed to introduce remarks Mr Poots made in the Assembly while allegedly talking about the case.

He is recorded as saying: "There is a continual battering of Christian principles, and I have to say this - shame on the courts, for going down the route of constantly attacking Christian principles, Christian ethics and Christian morals, on which this society was based and which have given us a very good foundation."

David Scoffield QC, for JR65, argued that the comments clearly show a link between the gay blood ban and Mr Poots religious convictions.

"If the Minister's decision was nothing to do with morality and simply to do with public safety then the court's decision on that would have nothing to do with religion or morality, but simply the evidence and rationality of the Minister's approach," the barrister submitted.

Mr Justice Treacy was also referred to  a news report on Mr Poots' contribution to a debate on gay men giving blood back in 2001.

In it the Lagan Valley MLA was said to have attacked the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission for saying the ban on homosexuals giving blood could be discriminatory.

He was quoted as claiming it was a human right for those receiving donations to know they are getting "clean blood" uncontaminated by the HIV virus.

Mr Scoffield further contended that Mr Poots maintained the ban against the advice of his officials and then tried to "conceal" the fact an actual decision had been taken. "A fair-minded observer would conclude there is a real possibility the decision was infected by bias," he insisted.

Margaret Gray, responding for the former Minister, claimed there was no justification for making a finding of apparent bias.

She said his "clean blood" remarks were consistent with his position based on available evidence and ensuring the highest possible levels of public health protection in Northern Ireland.

Holding religious views cannot, on its own, be enough to establish suspicions of prejudice, she added.

"The respondent's position remains that the decision was made purely on health grounds," she told the court.

"It might be consistent with earlier expressed views the Minister had, or might be consistent with some of the tenets of his religious convictions. But that does not justify a finding that there was apparent bias in the decision making on the part of the Minister."

Following submissions Mr Justice Treacy reserved judgment in the case.

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