Top judge hits at minister over law
The head of Northern Ireland's judiciary has accused a member of the power-sharing government of making comments which are "detrimental" to the rule of law.
Lord chief justice Sir Declan Morgan wrote to leaders Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness seeking assurances there would be no repeat - but received no substantive reply.
Stormont 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.
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."
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.
Last year, a judge ruled that Mr Poots' decision not to lift the ban was irrational.
The health minister strongly criticised the ruling, saying he believed the judge was wrong.
In November the Stormont assembly debated the issue.
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 Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness, First Minister and Deputy First Minister at the devolved administration, Sir Declan wrote: "Regretfully I am writing to you about comments made by a minister which I believe are detrimental to the rule of law in Northern Ireland."
He addressed senior members of the judiciary in Belfast on Friday marking the opening of the new legal year.
He said: "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."