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Court ruling has far-reaching implications

A High Court ruling yesterday that a civil service decision on a waste treatment plant was unlawful in the absence of a minister has potentially far-reaching political and economic implications.

The Department of Infrastructure's approval for the controversial Arc21 scheme on the outskirts of north Belfast last September caused considerable disquiet and raised questions about the role of the civil service while Stormont was not functioning.

Since the devolved structures collapsed more than a year ago, it has been left to unelected public servants to ensure government services continue to run.

That may have been understandable as a temporary, short term, measure while the parties agreed a deal that would see the return of an assembly and executive, but the talks dragged on without any degree of urgency and eventually came to a shuddering halt in February when the DUP took cold feet over a proposed agreement with Sinn Féin.

Since then there has been no great pressure on the parties to get back around the table and absolutely no sense that we could even see a deal concluded this year.

With the secretary of state clearly reluctant to impose full direct rule or take any firm action, it has been left to the civil service to implement policies which had already been determined by the previous executive.

However, the ruling by Mrs Justice Keegan yesterday means that the ability of officials to make major decisions outside established policy must now be thrown into considerable doubt.

The judgment may be subject to appeal but that process could also take some time which leaves both senior civil servants and those awaiting approval for significant projects in a state of uncertainty.

At the very least, officials must expect that any future decisions could face judicial review and the prospect of rejection by the courts.

What was an already unacceptable situation has just got worse.

Limping along without a fully functioning government is not in the best interests of the economy or the wider public.

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