06:32, October 13 29 0 theguardian.com

2017-10-13 06:32:03
Tory-DUP £1bn deal may breach equality duties, says NI rights group

The £1bn deal between the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist party securing Theresa May’s parliamentary majority is being challenged on the grounds that the spending might breach equality duties.

An exchange of letters between the Treasury and a prominent Northern Ireland human rights group, seen by the Guardian, has raised questions about whether the extra funding will be allocated on a non-partisan basis.

In July, shortly after the confidence and supply agreement was signed in Downing Street, the Committee on the Administration of Justice in Belfast wrote to the government in London raising concerns about how the money would be allocated.

Fidelma O’Hagan, a solicitor with the CAJ, pointed out that the agreement implied that a “number of decisions have already been taken to earmark funding that have equality implications”.

Among those, she said, was £400m for a road interchange and other infrastructure in Belfast whereas “the existing infrastructure deficit is largely in the mostly Catholic west of the [river] Bann rather than Belfast”.

She also questioned whether any proposed expansion of public sector jobs in Northern Ireland “through expansion of reserve military regiments” was being considered since those posts have traditionally been taken up more by Protestants than Catholics.

Spending priorities adopted by the devolved administration at Stormont are a sensitive sectarian issue and have historically given rise to allegations of favouritism during the history of the Troubles.

Mel Stride MP, the financial secretary to the Treasury, has replied to the CAJ saying that section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 – the public sector equality duty – does not apply to the proceedings of the Commons or Lords. Further, he added, if it did apply, the government would be under no obligation to carry out an equality assessment until the money was allocated.

But Daniel Holder, deputy director of the CAJ, said: “The directing of resources to the benefit of one side of the community was a core grievance in Northern Ireland’s Troubled past. To address this the equality duty was consequently a central safeguard in the Good Friday agreement.

“This new arrangement between the government and the DUP cannot be used as a vehicle to bypass the equality duty when earmarking funds, to do so would further roll back the agreement at a time when it is already under strain.

“To date ministers have sidestepped their equality duties in relation to the operation of this deal – that is troubling and challengeable, we would urge them to comply as a matter of urgency,” he said. The CAJ is considering legal action.

A spokesperson for the Conservative party said: “As the confidence and supply agreement clearly states, the Conservative government ‘will continue to govern in the interests of all parts of the community in Northern Ireland’. The additional funding agreed for Northern Ireland is for the benefit of everyone across society.

The equality assessment dispute has surfaced ahead of a judicial review challenge in the high court in London at the end of this month.

The crowdfunded legal challenge brought by Ciaran McClean, a Green party activist in Northern Ireland, alleges that the deal is in breach of the Good Friday agreement under which the government undertook to exercise its power in Northern Ireland “with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions”. The legal challenge also argues that the political deal breaches the Bribery Act 2010 and is in any event unlawful as a corrupt arrangement.

In a separate development, lawyers for Professor Joshua Silver, a physicist at Oxford University, have written to the Metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, asking her to investigate whether the £1bn constitutes bribery.

The letter has been sent by the international prosecutor Sir Geoffrey Nice QC. The Met has responded saying the letter had been forwarded to the “special enquiry team, specialist crime and operations, for their consideration”.