High Court judgment could now lead to more challenges on Stormont policy calls
A High Court judgment overturning approval for a controversial incinerator could open the floodgates to legal challenges if senior civil servants continue to take key decisions.
TUV leader Jim Allister issued the warning as Secretary of State Karen Bradley last night studied the ruling that questions the ability of Stormont officials to make major policy decisions when devolution is suspended. Mr Allister said: “The big question hanging over the current structure of government in Northern Ireland was whether permanent secretaries could exercise the powers of a minister.
“The answer back from the courts is they can’t. If they continue to make such decisions they will open the floodgates to legal challenges.
“I suspect senior civil servants will now be very reticent and nervous about doing anything.”
SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon said: “The overturning of the incinerator decision calls into question all decisions of significance taken by permanent secretaries since devolution collapsed 16 months ago.
“It is also clear as a result of this judgment that no decisions of significance can be taken legally by senior civil servants. It is imperative that the devolved institutions are restored, so we have local ministers able to take democratically accountable decisions that benefit people’s lives.”
Yesterday’s High Court ruling overturned a decision by senior civil servant Peter May approving a huge waste incinerator plant at Mallusk.
Key civil servants have been taking the majority of decisions within departments since Stormont’s collapse in January 2017.
Presiding in a judicial review case, Mrs Justice Keegan found that Mr May, the permanent secretary of the Department for Infrastructure, did not have the power to approve the planning application for the £240m incinerator facility on the old Hightown quarry site near Newtownabbey.
She said such a decision should have been made by elected ministers.
David Sterling, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, is running Stormont during the political impasse.
A spokesman for Mr Sterling and The Executive Office said: “We are considering today’s judgment.”
Mr Allister said Mrs Bradley had dragged her feet too long on establishing direct rule.
“It is time to stop playing games and give us government. Government can come from only one of two places — Stormont or Westminster. Stormont is clearly inoperable. That being so there is an onus on Westminster to get on with the job,” he said.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said the ruling highlighted “the senselessness of Sinn Fein blocking devolved government”.
She said: “It is not advancing a political cause but simply punishing everyone in Northern Ireland by leaving decisions in limbo.
“Four out of five parties would restore devolution today. Sinn Fein is the only roadblock. It’s time for that party to step back and consider the cost.”
Mrs Foster added: “The DUP delivered a £1bn package through our confidence and supply deal. Much of that money requires ministerial decisions. The government should get arrangements in place to allow ministerial decisions to be made.
“I am a devolutionist. I want to see local decision-makers in place but Northern Ireland needs decisions properly made, whether about mental health, hospital reforms, broadband or the green light for new roads.”
But Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald denied the judgment hastened the introduction of direct rule.
“I think direct rule would be disastrous for good government here in the north of Ireland,” she said.
“Whatever the differences between parties, I think there is a recognition that the best answer is for local decisions that affect people’s lives to be taken locally.
“Undoubtedly this decision highlights yet again the absolute necessity to restore power-sharing and for these institutions to work and these institutions can only work on the basis of real power-sharing.”
Ulster Unionist MLA Steve Aiken said the Hightown incinerator must be “given the swiftest burial possible” and repeated his party’s call for a review of Northern Ireland’s energy strategy.
Green Party leader Steven Agnew said: “MLAs are elected to take tough calls and we find ourselves in this mess because the DUP and Sinn Fein can’t get on with the jobs they were elected to do. I was never a supporter of this incinerator and believe that local people will be rightfully pleased today.
“However, we find ourselves in a dysfunctional situation which can only be rectified by a functioning Assembly and Executive”.