Court ruling ‘calls into question’ decisions made by senior civil servants in Northern Ireland
NICS decision to approve waste incinerator in absence of executive overturned in court
Northern Ireland Civil Service head David Sterling. Credit: Nick Ansell/PA
The head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service is assessing the impact of a Belfast High Court ruling to overturn a decision made by a senior civil servant to approve a controversial waste incinerator.
Northern Irish politicians have said the judge’s ruling could have major implications for other decisions taken by civil servants in the absence of ministers.
NICS has been running the devolved administration since a power sharing agreement between DUP and Sinn Féin broke down over the handling of a renewable energy scheme in January 2017.
Peter May, the Department for Infrastructure permanent secretary, gave the go-ahead last year for construction of a £240m waste treatment and energy plant in County Antrim.
But Mrs Justice Keegan, presiding in a judicial review case at the High Court, found that May did not have the power to take this decision, which she said should have been made by elected ministers.
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A spokesperson for David Sterling, head of NICS, told the Belfast Telegraph that the Executive Office was considering the judgement. The Northern Ireland Office also said secretary of state Karen Bradley was looking into the ruling.
A proposal for the incinerator was turned down by then environment minister Mark Durkan in 2015, but the local government consortium behind the scheme, Arc21, appealed the decision. In the absence of an executive, the perm sec then approved the plans, stating that the plant was of strategic importance to the region.
During the judicial review, lawyers challenging this decision said civil servants were “in disarray as to how far their powers extend”. They said the approval was inconsistent with other decisions taken by civil servants, including Sterling’s refusal to offer compensation to victims of historical institutional abuse without ministerial direction, despite this having been recommended by an official inquiry.
But counsel for the department had said legislation at Stormont allowed officials to take planning decisions, and that disallowing this would result in “a shutdown of government”.
Speaking after the judge’s ruling, Social Democratic and Labour Party deputy leader Nichola Mallon told the Belfast Telegraph: “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.”
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said the ruling underlined the necessity to restore power sharing arrangements, while DUP MP Paul Girvan said it had major implications for decision-making in Northern Ireland.
“It shows that the lack of ministerial direction is unsustainable if we are to have significant decisions taken that affect the lives of people in Northern Ireland,” he added.
Stirling told a public inquiry in March that it was “unacceptable that we’re having to deliver public services in Northern Ireland without ministerial direction”. He said the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, which led to the collapse of the DUP and Sinn Féin government, had impacted the reputation of the civil service.
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