Northern Ireland

DUP ministers face one year suspension for conduct breach but sanctions need assembly support

Watchdog found failure to attend North-South Ministerial Council breached the ministerial code

Former DUP agriculture minister Edwin Poots. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire
Former DUP agriculture minister Edwin Poots. PICTURE: NIALL CARSON/PA

Five acting and former DUP ministers, including assembly speaker Edwin Poots, face being suspended from office for up to one year for breaching the ministerial code.

The SDLP has said it plans to seek the assembly’s support for imposing sanctions on Paul Givan, Gordon Lyons, Michelle McIlveen, Gary Middleton and Mr Poots after Stormont’s standards watchdog said failure to attend North-South Ministerial Council meetings in 2021 was a breach of the ministerial code of conduct.

Commissioner for Standards Melissa McCullough has no power to sanction ministers but the assembly can vote on the matter.

The necessary motion must be moved either by the first and deputy first ministers, acting jointly, or be supported by at least 30 MLAs.

In order to succeed, the motion must have cross-community support but cannot be blocked by the deployment of a petition of concern.

The potential sanctions include exclusion from office for between 3 - 12 months and a cut in salary.

DUP MLA Michelle McIlveen asked about an increase in checks on agri-food
Former DUP education minister Michelle McIlveen. PICTURE: BRIAN LAWLESS/PA

The commissioner’s report, published last Friday in the midst of intensive election coverage, concluded that the ministers’ failure to attend the cross-border body’s meetings was a “clear and publicly stated intention by the DUP to disengage with the NSMC, including non-attendance at NSMC meetings”.

The four DUP ministers and junior minister claimed scheduling issues were to blame for their non-attendance.

Opposition leader Matthew O’Toole welcomed the watchdog’s findings and said his party would seek MLAs’ support to impose sanctions.

He said the DUP “boycott” of the north-south institutions and the subsequent collapse of devolution was “completely unacceptable”.

“If the ministerial code and the role of the standards commissioner are to mean anything then there must be accountability for those found to have broken the rules,” he told The Irish News.

“The SDLP Opposition will seek sanctions for ministers who have breached the code and we will also seek the support of other parties for a motion of censure that acknowledges the findings of the commissioner.”

Mr O’Toole said the party had already raised Stormont reform and measures to prevent a future collapse of the institutions with new Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer and Secretary of State Hilary Benn.

The Irish News contacted the other Stormont parties to ask if believed there had been a breach of the ministerial code and whether they supported sanctions against the ministers and MLAs in question.

Only the TUV responded to say they would not support sanctions.

A spokesperson added: “The report’s findings underscore the TUV assertion that being part of a protocol implementing executive is incompatible with opposition to the Irish Sea border.

“If DUP ministers are expected to maintain normal north-south relations while our relations with the rest of the nation is trashed by the protocol then obviously no unionist can be a minister in such an executive.”