Northern Ireland

Gay blood ruling could have 'serious implications for devolution'

Northern Ireland's first minister has said a court ruling over a ban on blood donations from gay men could have "serious implications for devolution".

Peter Robinson was asked if he would take action against NI health minister Edwin Poots after a Belfast judge ruled he had broken the ministerial code.

Mr Poots lost a legal challenge to his decision to retain a lifetime ban on accepting blood donations from gay men.

Mr Robinson said he would not sanction Mr Poots, adding he expected an appeal.

The UK-wide lifetime ban on accepting blood donations from gay men was introduced in the 1980s, but the rules were relaxed two years ago in England, Scotland and Wales.

In November 2011, the rest of the UK began to accept blood donations from men whose last sexual contact with another man was more than a year ago, but Mr Poots retained the lifetime ban in Northern Ireland, citing safety fears.

Last Friday, a Belfast High Court judge ruled Mr Poots did not have the power to keep an "irrational" lifetime ban, and had also breached the ministerial code by failing to take the issue before the Stormont Executive.

The code requires individual Stormont ministers to consult their colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive before making decisions that are considered to be highly significant or contentious.

Speaking to BBC Northern Ireland's political editor Mark Devenport on Tuesday, Mr Robinson said: "The judgment, if it was to be carried into our normal practices in Northern Ireland would have seen every minister at the Executive table having been in breach of the ministerial code. It's a very wide interpretation of the ministerial code and one which I think the Executive is going to have to look at.

The DUP leader added: "I suspect it may well go to appeal. I think it might even go to appeal because the GB department (UK Department of Health) might find that some of the ruling has serious implications for devolution itself."

Mr Robinson said he would "dismiss" calls to discipline Mr Poots over the alleged breach of the ministerial code, adding that DUP minister had "acted in good faith".

The DUP leader added: "Don't forget , Edwin Poots is not the first minister to be brought before the courts and to be found wanting.

"I didn't hear, when Margaret Ritchie was before the courts - having defied the Executive on a matter like this - I didn't hear you or anybody else saying that she should somehow be dismissed or in some way she should've been punished."

His comments referred to another Belfast High Court case in 2008, when a judge ruled that the then Social Development Margaret Ritchie had breached the ministerial code by cutting £1m of public funding for a loyalist conflict transformation initiative in October 2007.

Mr Robinson added: "The key issue in all of this is the ministerial code is critical from our point of view. We believe that any major decision, any controversial decision should be brought to the Executive, but if every decision which is cross-cutting - which is virtually any spending decision at all - has to be brought to the Executive, then every minister falls foul."

When contacted by the BBC on Tuesday, a UK Department of Health spokesperson said: "We will consider the potential implications of this judgment on UK blood policy."

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