Civil servants are in “disarray” over the extent of their powers in the absence of ministers at Stormont, the High Court has heard.
Lawyers for a group opposed to a £240m waste incinerator in Co Antrim claimed officials have been inconsistent about their authority to take decisions on high-profile issues amid the continued political deadlock.
They contrasted approval for the facility at Hightown Quarry in Mallusk with victims of historical child abuse being told compensation will not be paid without ministerial approval.
Senior counsel said: “The civil service are themselves in disarray as to how far their powers extend.”
Campaigners are challenging a decision by the Department for Infrastructure to give the go-ahead for the controversial incinerator project without a minister being in post.
In 2015 the then environment minister Mark H Durkan turned down the scheme.
But the consortium behind the project on behalf of local councils, Arc21, was given permission after the Planning Appeals Commission recommended approval.
In September last year the department said it was in the public interest for the waste management system to be built, describing it as being of strategic importance for the Province.
Up to 4,000 objection letters were lodged, with residents listing concerns about the visual impact, light and noise pollution and health implications.
Judicial review proceedings have been issued by Colin Buick, chairperson of community group NoArc21.
His barrister argued that senior officials had no legal power to approve the incinerator.
The department’s decision to grant planning permission lacked the direction and control of a minister required under legislation, it was contended.
Mrs Justice Keegan was told that alone was enough to “sound the death knell” for allowing the development.
“Government ministerial decisions in this jurisdiction cannot lawfully be taken in the absence of ministers,” counsel insisted.
He also drew a parallel between his opponent’s case and that of Sir Humphrey Appleby, the fictitious private secretary from the television satirical sitcom Yes Minister.
It was claimed this would be like supplanting democratic control with a “hegemony of Sir Humphreys”.
During the hearing reference was made to the situation facing those molested in residential homes.
Despite compensation being recommended by the Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) Inquiry chaired by Sir Anthony Hart, the head of Northern Ireland’s Civil Service was said to have written to victims in December explaining that ministerial approval is required for payments.
“There is a marked inconsistency between the HIA compensation issue and the approach taken in the decision in this application,” the barrister added.
Counsel for the department described the case as being of constitutional importance.
He disputed claims that decisions could not be taken without a minister being in post.
He also submitted that if no such determinations had been reached since the collapse of power-sharing it would have led to a shutdown of government.
Judgment was reserved following closing submissions in the case.