Stormont MLAs have clashed over a High Court ruling that the boycott by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of north-south meetings in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol is unlawful.
Mr Justice Scoffield delivered the declaration at Belfast High Court on Monday after a Belfast man, Sean Napier, brought judicial review proceedings into the lawfulness of the DUP move.
The case centred around DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s announcement last month that his party would disengage with the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) meetings as part of their campaign of opposition to the protocol.
Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson raised the matter in an urgent question to First Minister Paul Givan and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill in the Assembly on Tuesday.
Mr Dickson asked whether meetings of the North South Ministerial Council would resume immediately after the ruling.
Responding, Mr Givan said the judgment was “currently being considered”.
Mr Dickson further asked, “having had his party placed in the dock yesterday”, what action he now proposes to ensure that he and all the executive ministers would “adhere to the ruling of the court”.
Mr Givan said the “way to resolve this is through a political resolution”.
“I look forward to what the European Union will publish tomorrow.”
Later during the exchanges Mr Givan indicated that health business was exempt from the boycott.
“I have signed off in line with the statement that was made by the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, that when it came to the issues around health that that would be an area which should be able to continue, and that meeting, I am clear, can take place this week,” he told MLAs.
“I have also added to that, given that the peace-plus programme has within it a particular theme that relates to health and funding associated with that, subject to the Deputy First Minister approving that through the urgent procedure, that that meeting should take place and it should then approve the peace-plus funding in respect of the urgent procedure that the Finance Minister (Conor Murphy) has requested.”
Mr Givan was fiercely criticised, including by Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan, who said: “The days of the DUP playing politics with the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement must end today.”
The DUP leader hit back: “The north-south bodies didn’t meet for three years because Sinn Fein pulled down these institutions, so we will not take any lectures from the party opposite whenever it comes to how these institutions should be operated in a manner which is faithful.”
Colin McGrath, Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) MLA, put to the First Minister that north-south co-operation “delivers for the people of Northern Ireland”, and asked whether not attending the council meetings was a “monumental example of cutting off your nose to spite your face”.
However, Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister, who also opposes the protocol, asked Mr Givan whether there was “a point of principle here which is more important than holding office”.
Mr Givan said his party was “focused on outcomes which resolve the issues”.
He added: “I want to have good relations not just on this island but across these islands, but that requires everybody to take on board the issues that are being brought to the table and the southern government need to pay attention to that.”
Later, Alliance MLA Andrew Muir questioned why Ms O’Neill had not been present in the chamber for the urgent question, and whether the views expressed by Mr Givan reflected hers.
Meanwhile, Finance Minister Conor Murphy welcomed agreement to progress the £1 billion peace-plus programme.
He said it will be on the agenda of a north/south meeting scheduled to be held on Thursday.
“This £1 billion fund will support projects for young people, health initiatives, environmental programmes and job creation,” he said.
“I hope that this progress on Peace Plus marks an end to the DUP’s damaging and illegal boycott of the NSMC.
“NSMC approval this week will keep the fund on schedule and allow the programme to be sent forward to the European Commission for sign-off early in the new year.
“This will allow the programme to open for calls in early 2022.”