A legal challenge against a DUP boycott of north-south political structures is set to return to court after one of the party’s ministers failed to participate in two cross-border meetings.
The unionist party has vowed to disengage from the structures of the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC), apart from meetings on health issues, as part of its protest against Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.
However, on Monday, a judge at Belfast High Court, Mr Justice Scoffield, ruled the DUP position unlawful.
Despite that ruling, DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots did not participate in two planned virtual meetings with Irish ministerial counterparts on environmental issues on Friday.
Under Stormont rules, such meetings with the Irish Government cannot proceed without the participation of both a unionist and a nationalist minister from the Northern Ireland Executive.
On Monday, the judge did not make an order compelling the DUP to participate in future meetings, but told the Belfast businessman who brought the legal challenge – Sean Napier – that he could return to court to seek one if the party did not act on his declaration of unlawfulness.
Mr Napier’s challenge is now set to return to Belfast High Court on Friday afternoon.
The DUP has contended that it technically did not boycott Friday’s meetings, because it was not possible to formally schedule them after DUP First Minister Paul Givan refused to sign off on the agendas.
In line with the DUP’s pledged exemption to its position on the NSMC, a north-south meeting on health matters did take place on Thursday.
Sinn Fein junior minister Declan Kearney, who was due to participate in the second of Friday’s meetings, said: “It’s time the DUP put ordinary people’s interests first by ending this illegal boycott of vital government business and get back to work on behalf of everyone in our society.”
SDLP Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon, who was due to participate in Friday’s first meeting on marine issues, accused the DUP of “unacceptable and totally dishonest” behaviour.
She also questioned the point of the boycott, claiming the meeting on Thursday had been used to “rush through” a series of other NSMC issues which were not related to health.
“It is astounding, following this week’s High Court ruling, that (DUP leader) Jeffrey Donaldson is overseeing a deliberate and unlawful boycott of the north-south institutions,” she said.
“It shows not only disdain for the rule of law but utter contempt for the people we represent.
“It is also fundamentally dishonest – a wide range of NSMC business was rushed through a health sectoral format meeting this week. So what exactly is the point of this tactic? The DUP leader should at least be honest with people rather than marching them halfway up the hill.”
The NSMC is a construct of the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998 and is designed to enhance political co-operation on the island of Ireland. The peace accord also includes structures to maintain and foster east-west relationships with the island and Great Britain.
The DUP argues that the north-south relationship cannot continue as normal when, it claims, the Northern Ireland Protocol and its associated economic barriers on Irish Sea trade have inflicted damage on east-west relations.
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