Last night Northern Ireland ordered the end of Brexit controls on agricultural and food products arriving by sea from Britain.
DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots said authorities would stop carrying out inspections required under the Northern Ireland protocol at midnight.
Opposition parties have reacted with fury, insisting the civil service has a duty to comply with Stormont’s legal obligations to carry out checks under the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the move would be a “breach of international law”.
Last night it was unclear whether senior official in Mr Poots’ department, Anthony Harbinson, would comply with the order.
DUP Minister Edwin Poots (pictured), whose officials are tasked with carrying out Northern Ireland protocol checks under Britain’s Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, said he had ordered his Permanent Secretary to arrest them at midnight Wednesday evening.
The checks are to be carried out under the Northern Ireland Protocol, which avoids the need for a hard border between Ireland and the British nation (Pictured: Documents checked by Department of Agriculture, Tourism staff Environment and Rural Affairs of NI Monday)
The agriculture minister said the legal advice he had sought on the matter supported his view that he had the right to stop checks.
The move came after he failed last week to win wider approval from the Stormont executive to continue checks on agri-food products arriving in Northern Ireland from Britain. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said last week that the UK would not intervene if Mr Poots decided to stop checks.
Under the Northern Ireland Protocol, the province is supposed to retain full access to the UK market and the European single market.
As part of the deal, Brussels has insisted on screening goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK to ensure the route does not become a back door to the single market.
But the onerous controls imposed by the EU have been blamed for causing serious disruption to trade within the UK, as well as sparking political tensions in Northern Ireland.
Boris Johnson accused the European Union of implementing post-Brexit border rules in Northern Ireland in a ‘crazy’ way in Parliament last week
The protocol was negotiated as part of the Brexit deal to avoid a hard border with Ireland, effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the EU’s single goods market. But trade unionists lobbied for it to be scrapped
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?
During Brexit negotiations, the EU and UK agreed on a Northern Ireland Protocol that there would be no new checks on goods crossing the border between NI and the Republic of Ireland. Ireland (ROI).
The protocol aims to:
- Avoid a hard boundary between NI and ROI
- Ensuring the integrity of the EU’s single market for goods
- Facilitate unimpeded access of NI products to the UK market and the inclusion of NI products in free trade agreements between the UK and third countries
As a result of the Protocol, NI effectively remained in the EU single market for goods (England, Scotland and Wales left the EU single market for goods).
This allows goods to flow to and from NI to the ROI and the rest of the EU as they did when the UK was a member of the EU, without customs checks, tariffs or new documents.
EU rules on customs and agri-food regulations will continue to apply to goods arriving in NI.
The DUP had set February 21 as the deadline for the lifting of EU controls on goods from Britain.
Mr Poots said the legal notice said “there is currently no executive approval for SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) controls”.
He added: “The implementation of SPS controls requires management approval. The decision to initiate or continue such verifications could not be validly taken in the absence of executive approval. The notice concluded that I can order that the audits cease in the absence of executive approval. I have now given a formal instruction to my permanent secretary to stop all checks that were not in place on December 31, 2020, from midnight.
“I will be preparing a document for the executive’s consideration in the near future to seek agreement on the way forward.”
Mr Coveney suggested the DUP was ‘playing politics with legal obligations’.
He told the Irish parliament: “If a political decision is taken by a minister in Northern Ireland to stop all checks at ports on goods crossing the Irish Sea, entering Northern Ireland, that is indeed a breach of international law.”
Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said: ‘This stunt is an attempt by the DUP to unlawfully interfere with national and international law.
Whitehall sources said the move was ‘nuclear’ and the UK government was not immediately notified of Mr Poots’ announcement.
A government spokesperson in London said: ‘The operation of the checks is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive. We have always been clear that there are significant issues with the protocol that need to be resolved urgently, which is why we are in intensive talks with the EU to find solutions.
Mr Johnson was challenged over the rollout of the protocol in PMQs by DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
A spokesman added that Miss Truss would speak to European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic today. A diplomatic source said: ‘Miss Truss is talking to Mr Sefcovic and is focused on finding practical solutions to the problems created by the protocol and on safeguarding peace and political stability in Northern Ireland.’
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said last night it was up to the Northern Ireland Executive.
“It’s something within their legal jurisdiction,” he told ITV. “One of the frustrations is that, I have to say, this is something that we’ve been saying to the European Union for some time, this is the kind of thing that we might see happen.
“This is exactly the kind of thing we have been warning about in terms of executive stability and the decisions that executive ministers will make to ensure products can get from Britain to the UK. ‘Northern Ireland so they always have done.’