Loyalist activist Jamie Bryson has been denied permission to judicially review two Stormont Ministers behind a failed legal attempt to force police into removing a contentious bonfire.
He was seeking a High Court order restraining the SDLP’s Nichola Mallon and Sinn Fein’s Deirdre Hargey from taking any similar action against the PSNI without securing consent from their Executive colleagues.
But Mr Justice Scoffield dismissed his challenge on the basis that the issue is now academic.
The judge stated: “The Ministers failed to secure any relief. Moreover, the particular bonfire to which those proceedings related has also now long since burned out.”
Mr Bryson alleged the two political representatives breached the Ministerial Code by taking emergency action over the ‘Eleventh Night’ bonfire in north Belfast last July.
Mrs Mallon, the Infrastructure Minister, and Ms Hargey, her counterpart in the Department for Communities, brought the joint bid to have the PSNI compelled to intervene at the Tigers Bay site.
Police had refused to step in due to concerns about potential disorder and risk to the public, including young children in the Adam Street area.
The two Ministers’ challenge was rejected at the time, along with similar litigation by a nationalist resident in the neighbouring New Lodge district.
Mr Bryson represented the Tigers Bay Bonfire Group as a notice party in those cases.
He issued fresh proceedings against the two Departments, contending that the failed legal challenge had been unlawfully initiated.
Under Stormont rules, any issues regarded as significant, controversial and crosscutting must be tabled for consent by the full power-sharing cabinet at Stormont.
Counsel for the loyalist activist, former Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin QC, argued that the bonfire dispute clearly met that test.
He claimed both Ministers acted illegally and should be judicially barred from mounting any future “joint solo-runs”.
Contending that the bonfire dispute clearly meets that test, Mr Larkin claimed both Ministers have refused to recognise they have done anything wrong.
In his ruling Mr Justice Scoffield said an arguable case had been established that the legal steps taken against the PSNI by the relevant Ministers were significant, controversial and crosscutting.
But he held: “It seems to me to be plain that these proceedings, practically speaking, are now academic, in light of the fact that the relevant judicial review proceedings have been disposed of.
“Even if the applicant were successful in having the relevant Ministers’ decision to issue such proceedings quashed, that would now have no practical effect, given that those proceedings are no longer extant in any event.”
The judge went on: “If any such further litigation does arise, the question of whether the relevant Minister is deprived of authority to commence proceedings in the absence of approval can be addressed at that point.”
Dismissing the challenge, he confirmed: “In my judgment, the case is properly to be viewed as academic and there is insufficient reason for the court to exercise its discretion to proceed to hear the case, notwithstanding the interesting issues it raises.”
Following the ruling Mr Bryson announced his intention to lodge an appeal.
He said the judge had accepted “erroneous” claims that the case was academic, despite acknowledging the merits of his challenge.
“It is plain that manners have now been put on the nationalist Ministers by virtue of the bringing of these proceedings,” the activist stated.
“Our view is, and remains, that in circumstances whereby the nationalist Ministers refuse to explicitly recognise their illegality, there remains a live issue.
“Accordingly we will now petition the Court of Appeal for leave.”
Mr Bryson added: “One thing is for sure, these Ministers will never again be targeting bonfires unilaterally without Executive approval.
“The weakness of their defence in this case makes that very clear.”