Belfast Telegraph

Top judge accuses first ministers of showing contempt over Edwin Poots claims

By Adrian Rutherford

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have been accused of showing contempt for Northern Ireland's most senior judge after it emerged they have not replied to a letter sent by him nearly eight months ago.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan wrote to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in January over comments made by Health Minister Edwin Poots. Sir Declan said the remarks, in which Mr Poots questioned the independence of the Court of Appeal, were entirely unacceptable and detrimental to the rule of law.

In the correspondence sent to Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness's office on January 16, he also sought assurances there would be no repeat of the incident.

While an acknowledgement was received, Sir Declan has still not had a proper reply.

TUV leader Jim Allister said it was a contemptible way to treat the head of the judiciary.

"This is typical of the arrogant contempt with which OFMDFM functions or, as is more often the case, does not function," he claimed. "The Lord Chief Justice is right to be disturbed at the absence of a reply. It underlines the dysfunctionalism which underlines everything OFMDFM does."

It comes just weeks after a similar row involving the Ulster Aviation Society. The charity was forced to cancel two open days at the Maze after it did not get approval from Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness's department to use the site.

It did not even receive a reply to its request 10 months earlier for permission to hold the show.

The incident with the Chief Justice centres on the controversy over the ban on gay men donating blood in Northern Ireland.

The restriction was lifted in England, Scotland and Wales in 2011, but Mr Poots has kept it in place here, citing concerns over "blood safety" issues, even though a judge ruled last year that the DUP minister's decision not to lift the ban was irrational.

The minister criticised the ruling, saying he believed the judge was wrong.

During a Stormont debate last November, Mr Poots added he was reluctant to appeal the decision, stating: "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".

On January 16, Sir Declan penned a strongly-worded letter to Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness about the remarks.

He said the comments were "detrimental to the rule of law in Northern Ireland".

Sir Declan added: "While I have no difficulty with judicial decisions being the subject of informed comment and criticism, I think it entirely unacceptable for a minister to suggest that the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland is biased or unfair.

"Such a statement is not only untrue, it is inevitably damaging to public confidence in the administration of justice and ultimately to the strength of our democracy."

Commenting on the absence of a proper reply to the letter, the Chief Justice 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."

OFMDFM did not respond to requests for comment.

background

It is common for OFMDFM to fail to respond to media inquiries, Assembly questions and Freedom of Information requests when Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness cannot agree on an answer.

In July, the Belfast Telegraph revealed that 56 questions submitted by TUV leader Jim Allister, which should have been answered within 10 days, were outstanding, sometimes by almost three years.

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