A legal challenge against a DUP boycott of north-south political structures returned to the High Court in Belfast on Friday.
Businessman Sean Napier has demanded that the current “confusing picture” is cleared up 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 Mr Napier – who brought the legal challenge – that he could return to court to seek one if the party did not act on his declaration of unlawfulness.
Mr Napier’s legal team returned to the High Court on Friday.
Following a brief hearing, Mr Justice Scoffield allowed the respondents until the close of business on Tuesday to respond, with the case to be heard again on Wednesday,
Speaking outside court, solicitor Paul Farrell said they sought an early intervention from the court in relation to media reports that DUP ministers have not been participating in north-south meetings.
He added: “We’re very happy that the court has agreed with our approach and that this matter has to be kept under careful review, and the court has listed the case again for Wednesday of next week and at that stage there will be affidavits filed on behalf of Mr Napier and a response from the DUP ministers hopefully by Tuesday afternoon, so the position at that stage will hopefully become much clearer than what it is today.”
Mr Napier said his main aim is to protect the Good Friday Agreement.
“In 1998 as a young journalist I was at Stormont buildings when this was signed… for me I feel a bit of a guardian towards it,” he said.
“It’s been there for us, it’s kept the peace here and it’s imperative that it is properly implemented in all its parts. It’s not an a la carte treaty, it’s very important for what it has done for the greater good of the people here.
“So I think it is my duty to be its guardian and today in court has been very positive, and we’re looking forward to more positive protections for the Good Friday Agreement.”
Mr Farrell said the next stage of the process for his client will be to seek a specific order from the court, if necessary.
“But the ball is very clearly in the court of the DUP so far as that is concerned but Mr Napier is determined to see this matter through, so we await with interest what the response from the DUP leadership and ministers are by Wednesday of next week,” he added.
The DUP has contended 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.