The Northern Ireland Civil Service will not challenge a Court of Appeal judgement that it has warned will further limit the ability of civil servants to act in the absence of ministers.
Civil servants have been running the administration in Northern Ireland since a power-sharing agreement between DUP and Sinn Féin broke down in January 2017.
On 10 July 2018, the Court of Appeal in Belfast rejected a challenge from the NICS Department for Infrastructure to a High Court ruling which said that in the absence of ministers, the civil service did not have the power to grant approval for a the construction of a controversial waste incinerator.
A civil servant from the Department for Infrastructure gave approval for the construction of a incinerator last year, but the High Court overturned this decision in May.
In a statement released after the High Court ruling, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service David Stirling said civil servants had been taking departmental decisions on a number of issues for more than a year to ensure continued delivery of public services.
“We have been doing this reluctantly and only after taking legal advice,” he said. “And we never expected, or wanted, to have to do this other than for a very short period of time.”
He added that senior officials had acted where they believed it lawful to do so, and “where it was consistent with the direction of the previous minister or necessary in the public interest that a decision be taken at the time”.
However, the Court of Appeal judges ruled that the decision to approve the incinerator had been unlawful, saying that civil servants were arguing for a position which was “radical and anti-democratic”
This week, in a statement released after the infrastructure department confirmed would not challenge the Court of Appeal’s decision in the Supreme Court, Northern Ireland’s lead department, The Executive Office said: “Departments have always been clear that decision-making is limited without ministers. The Court of Appeal judgment makes the scope to act even more constrained.”
The proposal for a £240m waste treatment and energy plant in County Antrim was turned down in 2015 by then environment minister Mark Durkan, but the local government consortium behind the scheme, Arc21, appealed the decision.
The plans were later approved by the permanent secretary at the Department for Infrastructure then approved the plans, stating that the plant was of strategic importance to the region.