Poots orders halt to post-Brexit checks on goods from Britain to North

Minister cites legal advice that measures should not have been brought in without Stormont approval

The North's Minister for Agriculture has ordered that post-Brexit checks at Northern Ireland's ports are to be halted from midnight tonight.

Edwin Poots said he took the decision after he received legal advice on Wednesday which stated that "at present there is presently no Executive approval for SPS [sanitary and phyto-sanitary] checks.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said that such a move by Mr Poots would be “a breach of international law”.

“The protocol is part of an international agreement,” Mr Coveney told the Seanad on Wednesday evening. “It was agreed and ratified by the EU and the UK and its implementation is not only is it part of an international treaty, it’s part of international law.”

“To deliberately frustrate obligations under that treaty would be a very serious matter indeed,” he said.

“It would be essentially playing politics with legal obligations.”

He said that the protocol was “designed and conceived to protect the Good Friday Agreement” and that it “fully recognises the constitutional position of Northern Ireland”. He urged that the negotiations between the UK and the EU on the protocol should be allowed to continue.

“International law matters,” he said.

However, making the announcement to reporters at Stormont, the Mr Poots said “a decision to initiate or continue such checks could not be validly taken in the absence of Executive approval.

“The advice concluded that I can direct the checks to cease in the absence of Executive approval.

“I have now issued a formal instruction to my permanent secretary to halt all checks that were not in place on December 31st 2020 from midnight tonight.

“I will prepare a paper for Executive consideration in the near future to seek agreement on a way forward,” he said.

The DUP and other unionist parties are opposed to the Northern Ireland protocol, the part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement which avoided a hard Border on the island of Ireland by creating a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea.

They claim it is creating economic hardship and has undermined the North’s constitutional position as an integral part of the UK by placing a barrier between it and Britain.

Stunt

Since the UK left the EU physical checks have been required for some agri-food shipments from Britain to Northern Ireland.

Mr Poots sought legal advice from senior counsel after he attempted to bring a paper to the Northern Executive last week to seek a vote on the checks.

It is party’s broader campaign against the protocol, which has led it to repeatedly threatened to withdraw its ministers from the Stormont Executive – potentially leading to the collapse of the power-sharing institutions – if sufficient changes are not made to the protocol.

Mr Poots claimed recent court rulings mean the Executive must give its approval for the checks to continue, but last week’s move was criticised as a stunt by other parties, who maintain the Executive has already agreed his department is responsible for carrying out the checks and he does not have the authority to halt them as they are a requirement of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, an international agreement.

Sinn Fein MLA John O’Dowd said the Northern Ireland protocol was the law and Mr Poots and all Executive ministers were required to follow the law.

“The DUP signed off at the Executive that they would adhere to the regulations within the protocol,” he said.

“I have a number of questions which require to be answered by Mr Poots. Where did he get this legal advice?

“Did he go to the Attorney General? Did he use government legal advisers?

“The facts remain the same. The Executive has a position that they will adhere to the protocol, to the European Withdrawal Agreement, and the principle remains for all Executive ministers, you have to adhere to the law,” he said.

Mr O’Dowd said he had “no doubt” civil servants were “already taking advice on these matters.

“The civil service has its own guidance and protocols to work to and I have no doubt the civil service will be examining that very closely,” he said.

The Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said on social media that people were “tired of this grandstanding and instability” over the protocol and Mr Poots had “received clear legal advice in March 2020 when he first tried this stunt.”

“The Executive was clear”, she said, as was the UK’s Department of Agriculture, that the department in Northern Ireland is “obliged by law to undertake these checks”.

Asked by The Irish Times if the Department of Agriculture would follow the minister’s order, a Daera spokesman said: “The minister has received senior counsel advice and has issued an instruction on that basis.” Additional reporting - PA.