Theresa May’s narrow parliamentary majority will come under threat in an innovative high court challenge to the legality of the Conservatives’ £1bn deal with the Democratic Unionist party.
The high profile case on Thursday will focus attention on the confidence-and-supply arrangement signed in Downing Street in June under which the in key Commons votes in return for extra funding for hospitals, schools and roads in Northern Ireland.
Ciaran McClean, 53, a Green party parliamentary candidate in West Tyrone and the son of one of the founders of Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement, is spearheading the claim, which alleges that the deal breaches both the landmark 1998 and the Bribery Act.
He is represented by a team of prominent London lawyers – David Greene, a partner at Edwin Coe solicitors, and Dominic Chambers QC of Maitland Chambers – who were successful in the supreme court challenge over the government’s attempts to trigger article 50 without a Commons vote. John Cooper QC has also joined the legal team.
The legal basis of McClean’s case is that the , under which the government promised 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 government is trying to act as an honest broker in re-establishing the collapsed power-sharing executive at Stormont but the fact that there is a parliamentary deal creates a perception of partisan interference in the peace process, lawyers for McClean will argue.
The semblance of favouritism towards one party is sufficient to undermine the government’s insistence that it is impartial, it is alleged. The inter-party agreement appears to introduce a political bias and therefore breaches the terms of the Good Friday agreement.
The claim also alleges the £1bn of extra funding for Northern Ireland is an inducement for the DUP’s 10 MPs to support Theresa May and therefore constitutes bribery. DUP MPs, it is claimed, cannot vote or perform their other political activities impartially because they have tied themselves in advance to support the government.
The challenge through the Crowd Justice website and has already raised more than £92,000 so far on its way to a target of £100,000. That the case is being heard in open court by senior judges will ensure a public trial of widespread political concerns. It could have been dismissed by judges simply on the basis of having read submitted paperwork.
McClean’s legal initiative is not the only one examining the DUP/Conservative deal. , the successful lead claimant in the article 50 case, has already for the £1bn deal.
A Belfast human rights group, (CAJ), has also written to the Treasury questioning whether the spending might breach public sector equality duties.
McClean told the Guardian: “Having the hearing is an excellent achievement. It restores my faith in democracy, that I, as one person, can initiate an action and bring so much focus on what I feel is an abuse of power.”
The Conservative party declined to comment about the high court case. Responding to the CAJ challenge earlier this month a spokesperson for the Tories 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.”
Ciaran McClean, a man used to confronting authority
Ciaran McClean has fought goldmines and dual carriageways that threaten farmland and ancient bogs in Northern Ireland. His latest campaign could, technically, bring down the government.
The Green party candidate from the far west of the United Kingdom will fly to London this week to to challenge Theresa May’s £1bn parliamentary deal with the Democratic Unionist party.
McClean lives near Sixmilecross, a village in County Tyrone. He and his family are used to confrontations with authority. His father, Paddy Joe McClean, was one of the founders of Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement in the 1960s.
McClean Sr was one of the so-called “hooded men”, a group of 14 activists interned in 1971 in the early years of the Troubles and subjected by special branch officers to what the European court of human rights subsequently ruled was “inhuman and degrading treatment” but stopped short of torture.
Recently declassified files detailing the brutality has led to their case being reopened. Paddy Joe McClean is 84 and approves of his son’s legal challenge.
“I’m a seasoned campaigner and work through Friends of the Earth,” Ciaran McClean explained. “I was part of the Alternative A5 Alliance that took a judicial review to the high court [in Belfast] over the proposal for a motorway across Northern Ireland.
“It was going through 85km of of ancient bogs and highly productive farmland. Against all the odds we won [in 2013]. I have also protested against a planned goldmine in the Sperrin mountains.”
A Canadian company plans . “It’s a threat to the Sperrin mountains. They are the jewel in the crown of the local tourist industry.”
McClean heard about the DUP/Tory legal challenge through contacts and was eager to take up the gauntlet. “I campaigned very hard for the Good Friday agreement. It was historic and marginalised the [political] extremes to give us a new beginning in Northern Ireland.
“When I saw this deal between the Tories and the DUP, who were against the Good Friday agreement, [it seemed] a fundamental threat to everything we have achieved. So I initiated proceedings.”
McClean said he had not received any threats after launching the action and would attend a local Orange Order parade where there were DUP supporters. “It’s been a completely positive experience. This is much bigger than being about a parochial part of Northern Ireland.”
He works for the mental health charity Praxis Care. His wife, who is a museum curator, also backs his legal campaign, he stresses. “I’m just buoyed up by all the good wishes I have received from people in Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland,” McClean said. If, against the odds, he succeeds, reactions may be more mixed.