Northern Ireland

Sir Declan Morgan condemns Edwin Poots comments

Edwin Poots Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Mr Poots said he did not think he would get a fair hearing if the case went to the Court of Appeal

Northern Ireland's most senior judge has said comments by Health Minister Edwin Poots were detrimental to the rule of law and damaging to public confidence in the justice system.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan outlined his concerns in a letter to the first and deputy first ministers eight months ago.

He has still not received a reply.

Last year, a judge ruled that Mr Poots' decision not to lift a ban on gay men giving blood was irrational.

The health minister strongly criticised the ruling, saying he believed the judge was wrong.

Speaking in the assembly, he also said he did not not believe he would receive a fair hearing if he brought the matter to the Court of Appeal, suggesting that judges might circle their wagons.

Those comments prompted the lord chief justice to send a strongly worded letter of complaint to the first and deputy first ministers.

Image caption Sir Declan Morgan sent the letter to Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness

Sir Declan Morgan released a copy of the letter to the BBC on Friday.

In it, he said it was entirely unacceptable for a minister to suggest that the Court of Appeal was biased or unfair.

It goes on to say that the statement is not only untrue, but also damaging to public confidence in the administration of justice.

"Regrettably, this is not the first time that I have had to raise such concerns, which only adds to the seriousness with which I view the matter," the letter states.

"Our system of government depends on mutual respect between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.

"That is something which I wish to promote.

"These comments by Minister Poots, however, are damaging to the constitutional relationships and are not in the public interest."

A department spokesperson said; "The minister has publicly stated that this is a matter for the fairness and impartiality of the courts."

The DUP's Paul Givan MLA, who is the chairperson of the justice committee, issued his own warning to members of the legal profession.

"The judiciary need to be careful that they don't get too precious about their status," he said.

"Obviously they are fundamentally important to the criminal justice system and to the rule of law in Northern Ireland, as are politicians.

"Politicians ultimately are the lawmakers which the judiciary then need to enforce through the courts."

Earlier this year the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt began a legal appeal after the judge ruled it was up to him to decide if gay men could donate blood in Northern Ireland. The ban was lifted in Britain in 2011.

Mr Poots has also begun a legal challenge to the ruling.

Sinn Fein MLA Caitriona Ruane said she welcomed the statement from Sir Declan Morgan and said the health minister should withdraw his legal challenge.

"Not only should the minister immediately withdraw his remarks but he also reverse his decision to ban gay people donating blood," she said.

"At a time of great challenges for the department of health the minister should stop wasting valuable resources in pursuit of a political anti-LGBT community agenda on blood donations and adoptions."

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