Confusion over agri-food checks at Northern Ireland ports

DUP minister Edwin Poots said he had ordered his permanent secretary to halt checks at midnight on Wednesday, a move branded a “stunt” by Sinn Fein.

UK Border Force officers at the NI Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) Northern Ireland Point of Entry (POE) site on Milewater Road in Belfast at the Port of Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)
UK Border Force officers at the NI Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) Northern Ireland Point of Entry (POE) site on Milewater Road in Belfast at the Port of Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

Plans to halt Brexit agri-food checks at Northern Ireland ports were in limbo on Thursday morning after the deadline passed for civil servants to implement them.

DUP minister Edwin Poots, whose officials are responsible for carrying out Northern Ireland Protocol checks, said he had ordered his permanent secretary to stop them at midnight on Wednesday.

It remains unclear whether the senior civil servant in his department, Anthony Harbinson, will comply with the order.

Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots (Niall Carson/PA)

Late on Wednesday night, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) refused to confirm if the order would be carried out.

It may only become clear once the first ferries arrive at the port on Thursday morning.

DUP rivals at Stormont insist the civil service has a duty to comply with Stormont’s legal obligations to carry out the checks under the terms of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement

Mr Poots said legal advice he had sought on the issue supported his view that he was entitled to stop the checks.

A spokesman for Edwin Poots’ department said: “The minister has received senior counsel advice and has issued an instruction on that basis.”

Asked whether officials would comply with Mr Poots’ direction and whether hauliers should expect checks to be carried out on Thursday, the Daera spokesman said: “Nothing further to add.”

Some of the checks at ports have been delegated to local council staff while UK Border Force personnel also have a presence at the facilities. It is unclear what would happen to their roles if the Daera staff withdrew.

The move comes after he last week failed to secure the wider approval of the Stormont Executive to continue checks on agri-food produce arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

The minister argues that in the absence of Executive approval he no longer has legal cover to continue the documentary checks and physical inspections.

His bid to seek a ministerial vote at the Executive last week was branded a stunt by other parties.

They insist the Executive has already agreed that Mr Poots’ department has responsibility for carrying out the checks and he does not have the authority to halt processes that are required under the Withdrawal Agreement, an international treaty.

Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill branded the move a stunt.

She said the DUP move is motivated by poor opinion poll performances ahead of May’s scheduled Assembly election.

“This stunt is an attempt by the DUP to unlawfully interfere with domestic, and international law,” she tweeted.

“DUP fixated on their own priorities, which are clearly at odds with where the wider community is at.

“Health, Jobs, Housing, Cost of living crisis is where the rest of us are focused.”

The operation of checks is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive

UK Government spokesperson

Meanwhile, the UK Government has refused to intervene in the row.

“The operation of checks is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive,” a Government spokesperson said.

“We have been consistently clear that there are significant problems with the Protocol which urgently need fixing, which is why we are in intensive talks with the EU to find solutions.”

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is to speak to the European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic on Thursday, the spokesperson added.

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