The DUP’s boycott of north-south meetings in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol is unlawful, a High Court judge has ruled.
Mr Justice Scoffield delivered the declaration at Belfast High Court after a Belfast man, Sean Napier, brought judicial review proceedings into the lawfulness of the DUP move.
The case centred around DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s announcement last month that his party would disengage with the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) meetings as part of their campaign of opposition to the protocol.
Mr Justice Scoffield said: “The respondents decision to withdraw from the North South Ministerial Council was and is unlawful. “It frustrates, is contrary to and is in breach of legal duties contained in the Northern Ireland Act.”
He said that the declaration had been agreed by legal counsel for both the applicant and the respondents.
The judge continued: “Ministers of the Northern Ireland Executive are required to affirm the pledge of office, set out as part of the Northern Ireland Executive Ministerial Code.
“That includes a commitment to participate in the North South Ministerial Council and the British Irish Council.
“It is difficult for the court to reach any other conclusion than that the respondents have consciously determined to act in contravention of the pledge of office and the ministerial code.”
He added: “It is perhaps worth emphasising the each minister of the Northern Ireland Executive bears personal responsibility to comply with the pledge of office and the ministerial code.
“The court expects the respondents to comply with their legal obligations.”
Mr Justice Scoffield said he would not take any further action at the moment, but said if there was no change to the situation the applicant could return to court.
“The court obviously possesses further powers, but in my view, it would be a sorry spectacle for those powers to have to be invoked.”
Mr Napier’s lawyers had argued the decision to boycott the meetings is frustrating the function of government and could jeopardise peace funding.
They also argued that the policy breaches constitutional arrangements under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and violates the Stormont ministerial code and the pledge of office.
Two NMSC meetings have already been cancelled, with further meetings scheduled for later this week.
Five DUP ministers were named as respondents in the case, First Minister Paul Givan, junior minister at the Executive Office Gary Middleton, Education Minister Michelle McIlveen, Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots and Economy Minister Gordon Lyons.
In response to the ruling, Stormont First Minister Paul Givan said the DUP “will read through the judgement that has been passed in the courts and provide a more detailed response in due course.”
“But I would make this point… whenever it comes to the workings of the north south institutions, my party has made clear that we do wish to see all of the parts of the Belfast Agreement upheld,” he told the Stormont Assembly.
“But they are interdependent, they are interlinked and the east west dimension has been trashed as a result of the (Northern Ireland) Protocol.
“It is regrettable that it is having a knock on effect on the north south institutions.”
Mr Givan said his focus is “on wanting to have these issues resolved so that all of the parts of those institutions are able to function normally.”
“However, the Protocol has fundamentally undermined the basis on which the Belfast Agreement set up those various different strands,” he said.
Asked if, as a result of the ruling, he would ensure DUP ministers attend North South Ministerial Council meetings in compliance with the law, he said his party is “very much focused on resolving the issues which have created this impasse”. - PA