First Minister denies law change will pave way for more ministerial solo runs

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By David Young, PA

The First Minister has denied proposed legislation on the functioning of the executive will make it easier for ministers to embark on solo runs.

Arlene Foster said she was comfortable with the contents of the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill, whose passage is being fast-tracked through the Assembly.

The DUP leader's comments come after one of her former special advisers raised concerns that the Bill would undermine provisions in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement designed to prevent ministers acting alone on controversial matters.

The Bill seeks to clarify what constitutes a cross-cutting issue that requires the consideration of the whole Stormont Executive.

It is a response to a 2018 court judgment, when judges ruled that the granting of planning permission for a contentious waste incinerator plant in north Belfast was unlawful.

The decision was taken by a senior civil servant in the Department of Infrastructure in the absence of a minister due to the powersharing impasse.

The landmark Buick judgment found that making such a decision in the absence of a minister ran contrary to the letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.

It highlighted that the issue was a "cross-cutting decision" that should have required the input of the wider executive.

The proposed legislation seeks to clarify what constitutes a cross-cutting decision amid concerns that the judgment sets a precedent that any issue involving more than one minister should be referred to the executive.

Mrs Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill have argued that just because another minister has an interest in an issue being handled by another department does not automatically make it a decision that should be taken by the executive as a whole.

They claim the Buick judgment could undermine decision-making across all executive departments, leaving ministers open to legal challenge on issues that are not referred to the wider executive.

Mrs Foster's former adviser in the Executive Office, Richard Bullick, has raised concerns about the Bill.

He has portrayed it as a "significant rolling back of the St Andrews Agreement" that will "significantly undermine the ability of the executive to prevent ministers acting without collective agreement".

In another tweet, Mr Bullick added: "The 'cross cutting' definition isn't being clarified as is claimed: it's being rewritten to apply a much higher bar to what issues come to the Executive leaving Ministers to take a whole range of important decisions without collective responsibility."

The DUP leader was asked about those concerns on Monday.

She said: "Well, my very clear view, not just my view but the legal advice that we have been given on this, is this puts us in a post-St Andrews position, but a pre-Buick position.

"You will remember Buick was the case that was taken when there was no executive in place and there was a judgment given in relation to cross-cutting issues and so we needed to deal with that issue.

"And I'm very comfortable that that's where we are."

Asked if the Bill is paving the way for more ministerial solo runs, Mrs Foster replied: "No, it most certainly is not."

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