DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s announced last month that his party would ignore the crucial north-south meetings as part of their campaign against the Northern Ireland Protocol.
But on Monday a Belfast High Court judge ruled that the unionist party’s boycott was in breach of devolution legislation – ordering DUP ministers to “comply” with the law.
“The respondents’ decision to withdraw from the North South Ministerial Council was and is unlawful,” Mr Justice Scoffield said. “It frustrates, is contrary to and is in breach of legal duties contained in part five of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.”
The judge delivered the verdict after campaigner Sean Napier brought judicial review proceedings into the DUP move to boycott the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC).
Two meetings involved Dublin and Belfast ministers have already had to be cancelled after the DUP leader announced the party’s anti-protocol protest, with a further meeting scheduled for later this week.
Mr Justice Scoffield pointed out that the decision not to attend the north-south meetings came under the direction of the DUP leader – adding that the failure of the meetings to take place was “plainly a result of unlawful behaviour”.
The judge stated: “It is difficult for the court to reach any other conclusion than that the respondents have consciously determined to act in contravention of the pledge of office and the ministerial code … The court expects the respondents to comply with their legal obligations.”
Mr Justice Scoffield said he would not take any further action against DUP ministers – but warned that if there was no change to the situation the case could return to court.
“The court obviously possesses further powers. But, in my view, it would be a sorry spectacle for those powers to have to be invoked,” the judge said.
Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Fein deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, responded to the verdict by calling on the DUP to quit “play acting” over the protocol.
“Ministers need to do their jobs, act within the law, and stop impeding progress,” she tweeted, adding that peace funding set to be agreed by the north-south council “cannot be jeopardised by DUP play acting”.
But the DUP responded by claiming that its court defeat had strengthened the case for triggering Article 16 – a move already threatened by Boris Johnson’s government that would see parts of protocol unilaterally suspended.
“The High Court judgment is further proof that the conditions to trigger Article 16 have been met,” said a DUP spokesman.
“If an early resolution between the UK and EU cannot be achieved, we call upon the UK government to invoke the terms of Article 16 to avoid a further deterioration in political and economic stability in Northern Ireland.”
It comes as the row between the UK and Republic of Ireland over EU proposals aimed at easing protocol trade problems escalated.
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said Boris Johnson’s government had “shifted the playing field” and “dismissed” the EU’s ideas before they had even been published.
Lord Frost has released extracts of a speech he is due to make in Lisbon on Tuesday, saying the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has created a “deep imbalance” in the way the Northern Ireland protocol operates.
In a deepening row with Brexit minister Lord Frost, Mr Coveney said it was a “bit rich” for Britain’s negotiator to accuse him of causing problems on Twitter.
“David Frost accuses me of raising issues on social media. It’s a bit rich, quite frankly, because he is briefing British media effectively to say, ‘Well, the EU can make the changes that they need to make, but actually it’s not enough, we want more’.”
The Brexit minister replied to Mr Coveney by saying the issue of the ECJ “is not new”, adding: “The problem is that too few people seem to have listened.” He added: “I prefer not to do negotiations by Twitter.”
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