A Democratic Unionist Party minister yesterday won a High Court bid to block his Sinn Fein cabinet colleague from reallocating more than £100 million in European funding for farmers.
Northern Ireland’s top judge quashed Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill’s decision to transfer the money into rural development programmes following the unprecedented legal challenge by Simon Hamilton.
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan ruled that she breached the ministerial code by not seeking Stormont Executive approval for the plans.
Lawyers for Mr Hamilton, the Finance Minister, issued emergency judicial review proceedings after Ms O’Neill announced her intention to move 137 million euros of funding due over the next six years under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.
It was to be switched from a pot for direct payments to farmers to schemes more favoured by environmentalists.
But Mr Hamilton’s legal team claimed Ms O’Neill was wrong to make the decision - following public consultation - without referring the matter to the Executive.
David Scoffield QC argued that the issue required approval because it was cross-cutting, controversial, significant and involved external relations.
He said efforts to reach a resolution had failed as both sides became entrenched in their positions.
Mr Scoffield claimed Ms O’Neill had not responded to legal correspondence sent before the case reached court.
“The impression of the Department of Finance and Personnel Minister was that her view is ‘If I just keep my head down for a specific period of time I will get this over the line and nothing can be done’,” the barrister told the court.
Even after proceedings were launched it was made clear that Sinn Fein’s “settled view” was that the decision did not need to be put before the Executive, Mr Scoffield said.
Tony McGleenan QC, for the Agriculture Minister, contended that Mr Hamilton had no role to play in how Ms O’Neill allocated money that comes directly to her from Europe.
At one stage in the all-day hearing Sir Declan commented: “I can just see the first line of the judgment already - this is a case about political failure.”
But Mr McGleenan told him: “It ought to be that there’s been an abandonment of the political process because there are still avenues that ought to have been explored in order to resolve this issue.”
He argued that Mr Hamilton should have taken his case before the Executive rather than put “a wrecking ball” through the funding reallocation plans.
Ruling on the challenge, Sir Declan said he was satisfied that no prospect of a resolution existed.
“Because it has not been possible to reach political agreement in these matters the court has been engaged as a matter of last resort,” he said.
The judge held that the decision to transfer the funds was both significant and controversial.
“It’s clear there was a strong difference of opinion between the farming community and environmentalists over how that decision was to be made,” he pointed out.
“I conclude this matter should have been brought to the attention of the Executive Committee, and that the Minister made the decision consequently in breach of the ministerial code.
“These findings are sufficient for me to conclude that she had no authority to make the decision and in those circumstances I’m prepared to quash the decision.”