Gay blood ruling a victorious day for Edwin Poots
Appeal court says gay blood donations issue should be dealt with by Stormont
Northern Ireland's Health Minister should decide whether gay men can donate blood here, not the UK Health Secretary, the Court of Appeal has ruled.
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said the controversial issue should be dealt with by the devolved administration because it is not a reserved matter.
The judge also dismissed a ruling that ex-DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots acted irrationally by retaining the ban. In a vindication of Mr Poots, the judges ruled by 2-1 that maintaining the ban was not "disproportionate or contrary to EU law".
"It was regrettable that this case was taken in the first place," Mr Poots said. "It was not the best use of resources. The safety of the public has always been my first and foremost objective.
"I welcome the fact that the highest court in Northern Ireland has vindicated my position."
Sir Declan told a sitting at Belfast's Royal Courts of Justice: "Having analysed all the circumstances, we have concluded there is no basis for the conclusion that the minister's decision was pre-determined by his Christian beliefs, and there is ample evidence to indicate the minister approached the decision by evaluating the factors before adopting on a precautionary basis the status quo."
The ban on gay men donating blood was lifted in England, Scotland and Wales in 2011 and replaced with rules that allow the giving of blood a year after their last encounter with another man.
But the lifetime ban was kept in Northern Ireland by DUP MLA Mr Poots, who cited "blood safety" issues. His successor, Jim Wells, also declined to lift the ban.
Following a judicial review brought by an anonymous man last year, the High Court branded Mr Poots' stance "irrational", given that Northern Ireland accepts blood from other parts of the UK.
Mr Justice Treacy also found he had breached Stormont's ministerial code by not consulting on the policy with fellow ministers.
Mr Poots and his health counterpart at Westminster, Jeremy Hunt, lodged an appeal against the critical determination.
While Mr Poots appealed against the entirety of Mr Justice Treacy's ruling, Mr Hunt appealed only against the finding that responsibility for blood donation policy was a reserved matter.
Last year, Health Minister Simon Hamilton announced the ban should be lifted if a government advisory group said it was safe.
After the latest case, gay rights campaigners said the new ruling provided clarity.
John O'Doherty, director of LGBT support group The Rainbow Project, added: "It is disappointing their lordships have failed to recognise there is no reasonable, rational or medical reason to maintain this lifetime ban, particularly in light of the fact that other regions have moved to temporary deferral.
"Today's judgment clarified that the issue of blood donations remains within the purview of the Northern Ireland minister. We would once again urge Simon Hamilton to accept the advice given by the experts and adopt a one-year deferral, which exists in all other parts of the UK.
"This issue has been debated for over five years and tens of thousands has been spent on maintaining a ban. While the minister may state that he has not yet made a decision, any right-thinking person would accept that five years is enough time."
The Northern Ireland Equality Commission said it looked forward to a decision on the issue.
"The commission's position has been that a ban on blood donations from any group must be based on clear medical evidence and the extent and duration of the ban must be proportionate to the level of risk identified," it added.
"The Commission considers that the ban is inconsistent with the Department of Health's practice of accepting donated blood from Great Britain, where men are permitted to donate blood after a 12-month deferral."