Belfast Telegraph

Former Health Minister Edwin Poots would have faced resignation anywhere else in UK

By John McCallister

Anywhere else in the United Kingdom and it would have almost certainly resulted in the Minister's resignation. In fact, it simply wouldn't have happened elsewhere in the UK.

Earlier this month the Lord Chief Justice released a copy of the letter he sent to the First and Deputy First Ministers eight months ago. He was responding to comments by the then Health Minister Edwin Poots, who - after a court case had went against one of his decisions - declared that he wouldn't appeal it as he would not receive a fair hearing in the Court of Appeal. It used to be Sinn Fein who attacked Brit courts.  It seems that the custom has spread.

To make matters worse, the DUP's Paul Givan - chair of the Assembly's Justice Committee - responded to the Chief Justice's letter by issuing a warning to the judiciary: "the judiciary need to be careful that they do not get too precious about their status".

Let's be clear about what the Chief Justice said. He wasn't claiming that judicial decisions are above democratic debate and scrutiny. He wasn't claiming infallibility for the judiciary. He was saying that if politicians are serious about their commitment to the rule of law, they can't be undermining the legitimacy of the courts.

If we want to see normalisation of our politics in Northern Ireland, politicians respecting the rule of law is non-negotiable.

The courts do not exist to simply rubber-stamp decisions by the executive branch of government. Throughout British history, there is a long tradition of courts reminding governments that having a parliamentary majority does not mean a government can do whatever it desires. The courts remind the executive and the legislature that there are rights which must be respected, laws which must be obeyed.

The courts, in other words, are part of a network of bodies which check and limit the power of government.  They do this alongside an Opposition, a free press and entrenched rights.

And entrenched rights, by the way, are not some new creation of the liberal-left - they were recognised in 1688 with the Declaration of Right. Taken together, courts, Opposition, free press and entrenched rights make sure that while a government exercises its democratic mandate to govern, it must do so in an authentically democratic way, respecting the rights of all.

Part of our problem in Northern Ireland is that with a politics so determined to maintain the old tribal structures, we haven't been able to move towards normal, democratic politics. And those old tribal structures also make many of our politicians pretty intolerant of scrutiny, opposition and questioning.  That's why some parties want to block any moves towards creating an opposition in the Assembly, and why others feel it is acceptable to issue warnings to the judiciary.

So what does all this mean for the ordinary citizen?  It's not just constitutional theory. Scrutiny and accountability - the very things provided by courts, opposition, free Press and entrenched rights - make sure that government is reminded that it serves the people, not its own interests. They keep government honest, focussed and humble.  And, if we want to restore public confidence in politics, that is a good place to start.

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