Lord Chief Justice Morgan: “this is a case about political failure”

Not the Haass talks.  You can keep your nose pressed against the windowpane with David if you’re hoping for a scrap of comfort from that.  No, this is about the continued dysfunctional approach of the two main parties of the Northern Ireland Executive semi-detached polit-bureau to the process of government – as defined under the current administration.

Sinn Féin’s pre-Christmas (23 Dec) defence of the Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill’s unilateral decision to re-allocate €137 million of EU funding over the next six years under the Common Agricultural Policy was a good sign that they knew the gig was up.  Laughably the press release by SF MLA Oliver McMullan complains that “the [then] impending court case against the Department of Agriculture is… an attempt to breach Ministerial independence”.  [It’s as if he’s never heard of the Hillsborough Agreement… – Ed]  Indeed.

As it was they forced the Lord Chief Justice Declan Morgan to make his ruling and, in the process, put some manners on the errant Minister.  From the BBC report

The finance minister Simon Hamilton [DUP] blocked a move by agriculture minister Michelle O’Neill [Sinn Féin] to reallocate over £100m in European funding.

Ms O’Neill took the decision without securing executive approval for the plans.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan ruled that by doing so Ms O’Neill broke the ministerial code.

The Belfast Telegraph report has the legal arguments in a nutshell

David Scoffield QC argued that the issue required approval because it was cross-cutting, controversial, significant and involved external relations.

He said efforts to reach a resolution had failed as both sides became entrenched in their positions.

Mr Scoffield claimed Ms O’Neill had not responded to legal correspondence sent before the case reached court.

“The impression of the Department of Finance and Personnel Minister was that her view is ‘If I just keep my head down for a specific period of time I will get this over the line and nothing can be done’,” the barrister told the court.

Even after proceedings were launched it was made clear that Sinn Fein’s “settled view” was that the decision did not need to be put before the Executive, Mr Scoffield said.

Tony McGleenan QC, for the Agriculture Minister, contended that Mr Hamilton had no role to play in how Ms O’Neill allocated money that comes directly to her from Europe.

At one stage in the all-day hearing Sir Declan commented: “I can just see the first line of the judgment already – this is a case about political failure.” [added emphasis]

And quotes from the ruling by Lord Chief Justice Declan Morgan

Ruling on the challenge, Sir Declan said he was satisfied that no prospect of a resolution existed.

“Because it has not been possible to reach political agreement in these matters the court has been engaged as a matter of last resort,” he said.

The judge held that the decision to transfer the funds was both significant and controversial.

“It’s clear there was a strong difference of opinion between the farming community and environmentalists over how that decision was to be made,” he pointed out.

“I conclude this matter should have been brought to the attention of the Executive Committee, and that the Minister made the decision consequently in breach of the ministerial code.

“These findings are sufficient for me to conclude that she had no authority to make the decision and in those circumstances I’m prepared to quash the decision.” [added emphasis]

By the way, this is not about the decision itself.  It’s about the process of government.  Or, rather, the Minister’s failure to follow due process…

Adds  One other key point, given that the Minister’s unilateral decision was announced on the last Friday before Christmas (20th Dec).

From the notes to the ministerial press release

Rates of transfer between the Pillars of the CAP for the years 2014 to 2019 must be declared to Europe by 31 December 2013.

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