Northern Ireland civil servants ‘in disarray’ over extent of powers without ministers, court told

Written by Tamsin Rutter on 15 February 2018 in News

As cross-party power-sharing talks collapse, decisions made by senior officials in absence of an executive are challenged in Belfast High Court 

The Stormont Assembly, which hasn't had an executive since a power-sharing arrangement broke down in January 2017. Credit: Artur Widak/SIPA USA/PA Images

Civil servants in Northern Ireland are “in disarray” over the extent of their powers in the absence of an executive, the High Court in Belfast has heard.

Lawyers challenging a decision by the Northern Ireland Department for Infrastructure to approve a controversial £240m waste incinerator in County Antrim claimed senior officials have been inconsistent about the decisions they are empowered to take without ministers.

But a judicial review hearing yesterday was told by the barrister representing the department that disallowing civil servants to make such decisions would have resulted in “a shutdown of government”.

The latest round of cross-party talks between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party collapsed yesterday as DUP leader Arlene Foster pulled her party out of the discussions.

Civil servants have been running the devolved administration since the relationship between the two ruling parties turned sour over the handling of a renewable energy scheme in January of last year.


The Department for Infrastructure gave the go-ahead for construction of the waste treatment and energy plant last year, without ministerial approval, sparking criticism from politicians from all five of Northern Ireland’s main parties. The department said the plant was of strategic importance to the region and in the public interest.

The proposal had been turned down by then environment minister Mark Durkan in 2015, but the local government consortium behind the scheme, Arc21, appealed the decision. The Planning Appeals Commission then recommended approval.

In the High Court yesterday, a barrister representing local people campaigning against the plant – on the grounds of potential light and noise pollution and health implications – argued that civil servants had no legal power to approve the incinerator without ministers.

He said the civil service was “in disarray as to how far their powers extend”.

The BBC reported that he compared the case to that of compensation for victims of historical institutional abuse, which the head of the civil service in Northern Ireland, David Sterling, has said cannot be granted in the absence of ministers, despite it having been recommended by an official inquiry.

There was a inconsistency between the decisions taken by officials on compensation and on the planning application, the barrister added.

But counsel for the department said legislation at Stormont allows officials to make decisions over planning matters.

DUP’s Foster said there was “no current prospect” of the cross-party discussions leading to the formation of an executive, citing an impasse over Sinn Fein’s insistence on a standalone Irish Language Act.

She called on Westminster to set a budget and start making policy decisions about schools, hospitals and infrastructure.

About the author

Tamsin Rutter is senior reporter for Civil Service World and tweets as @TamsinRutter

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