Northern Ireland

Stormont to decide on whether gay men can give blood in Northern Ireland

The ban, put in place during the 1980s AIDS threat, was lifted in England, Scotland and Wales in November 2011.
Image caption The ban, put in place during the 1980s AIDS threat, was lifted in England, Scotland and Wales in November 2011

The Court of Appeal in Belfast has ruled that Stormont's Health Minister should decide whether a lifetime ban on gay men giving blood in Northern Ireland should be lifted.

It means that UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt will not have any input into this decision in the future.

In England, Scotland and Wales men can give blood if they have not had sex with another man for at least a year.

In Northern Ireland there is a lifetime ban on gay men donating blood.

The court dismissed an earlier ruling that former health minister Edwin Poots had acted irrationally or with apparent bias by keeping the ban in place.

The judges also held there was no basis for concluding that Mr Poots' decision had been pre-determined by his Christian beliefs.

Image caption In 2013 a judge described Edwin Poots' decision to keep the blood ban in place as "irrational" and said it was a matter for the Westminster health secretary

By a 2-1 majority, the judges concluded the current maintenance of the lifetime ban was not "disproportionate or contrary to EU law".

The ban on gay men donating blood, which was put in place during the 1980s AIDS threat, was lifted in England, Scotland and Wales in November 2011.

The courts in Northern Ireland have been deliberating the issue since then.

Pervious health ministers Edwin Poots and Jim Wells had said the prohibition should be kept in place in Northern Ireland on the basis of ensuring public safety.

Delivering their verdict on Wednesday, the three judges, led by Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, rejected the assessment of an earlier ruling that Mr Poots, had acted with irrationality or apparent bias in not adopting the same policy as the rest of the UK.

Image caption In 2015, Health Minister Simon Hamilton said the ban should be lifted if a government advisory group says it is safe

Sir Declan said: "There is no basis for the conclusion that the minister's decision in this case was pre-determined by his Christian beliefs, and there is ample evidence to indicate that the minister approached the decision-making by evaluating the competing factors before adopting on a precautionary basis the status quo."

He added: "We do not consider that the fair minded and informed observer could conclude that there was a real risk of apparent bias."

The court ruled that there was ample evidence to indicate that Mr Poots reached his decision by evaluating the competing factors, before adopting the status quo.

The current health minister Simon Hamilton has indicated that he is prepared to lift the ban if the government's Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO) says it is safe to do so.

Welcoming the judgement on Wednesday, Mr Hamilton said his department had recently received "substantial new evidence" from SaBTO.

"I will, as the judgement advises, carefully consider this without delay," he said.

"I have already made it clear that I would adopt the same policy on blood donations from MSM as the rest of the UK if evidence confirms that the current system in GB has not presented any significant additional risk to the safety of blood donations, or indeed affirms some recent findings that blood safety has been increased in GB."

Disappointment

John O'Doherty, Director of The Rainbow Project, which promotes the rights of the LGBT community, expressed disappointment at Wednesday's judgement.

"It is disappointing that they failed to recognise that there is no reasonable, rational or medical reason to maintain this lifetime ban," said Mr O'Doherty.

"We would once again urge Minister Hamilton to accept the advice given by the experts in SaBTO and adopt the one year deferral which exists in all other parts of the UK.

"This issue has been debated for over five years and tens of thousands of pounds of public funds have been spent on maintaining a lifetime ban.

"While the Minister may state that he has not yet made a decision, any right-thinking person would accept that five years is enough time to come to a decision."

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