Rigorous implementation of protocol will ‘wreck’ North’s economy – Poots

Volume of checks a ‘very good illustration as to why the protocol needs replaced’, says Foster

The North's Minister for Agriculture has warned that rigorous implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol will "wreck" the North's economy.

Edwin Poots, a DUP MLA, said what had been "imposed" upon Northern Ireland was "irrational, it is oppressive, it is burdensome and, actually, frankly, ridiculous" and a "reality check" is needed over the volume of post-Brexit checks on agri-food products entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Addressing a meeting of the Stormont Agriculture Committee on Thursday, the Minister said he welcomed the extension of the grace period on supermarket goods but said that to some extent it “just kicks the can down the road”.

The EU is taking legal action against the UK government over its move last week to unilaterally delay the full implementation of the protocol by extending some grace periods, accusing it of breaching the terms of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.


Northern Ireland's Chief Vet, Dr Robert Huey, has said previously that once the grace periods end the number of documentary checks required at the North's ports will approach the same amount of checks carried out in the entire EU.

Mr Poots asked how this could be “sensible or rational”, and questioned where he would find sufficient vets to take on this workload.

“At this stage, we’re potentially looking at around 400 staff [for the checks] and a very high number of vets being required,” he said.

“Now, I’m not sure where I’m going to get these vets because there already is a shortage of vets in the UK, so I’m not sure where we’re going to get them.”

‘Entirely illogical’

Under the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol, the North remains in the EU single market for goods, which necessitates physical and documentary checks on some goods arriving from Great Britain, particularly agri-food products.

Unionists are opposed to the protocol because it places a regulatory and customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and want it scrapped.

The pro-Remain parties in the North argue that issues with the operation of the protocol are the result of Brexit – which the DUP voted for – and say they should be resolved through its framework.

Mr Poots said moving departmental vets from other food safety work to check something which had been produced in Britain to the same standards “would be an entirely illogical thing to do and a complete waste of time and resource, and cause a significant addition to the cost of bringing food into Northern Ireland, and consequently an additional cost to the consumer.”

US concerns

The cost of “rigorous implementation” of the protocol was “a massive number of people involved in checks, additional cost to the industry, additional cost to consumer, damage to trading relationships that exist and significant consequences for business and the consumer in Northern Ireland,” he said.

Mr Poots suggested that politicians from other parties who were calling for this "would like to apologise to the Northern Ireland public, and indeed send the message to the European Union that they no longer want rigorous implementation because they've seen what it looks like, and rigorous implementation is going to wreck our economy if we don't address this issue.

Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Arlene Foster, said the volume of checks was “completely mad” and therefore “a very good illustration as to why the protocol needs replaced.”

The Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, said Northern Ireland would not have that level of checks if it did not have the “hardest possible Brexit . . . those that delivered us the hardest possible Brexit should shoulder the responsibility for the fact that we’re now dealing with what is a challenging situation.”

Meanwhile a senior official from the Northern Ireland Office, which represents the UK government in the North, is to be seconded to the US to build relations between Britain and the US president Joe Biden’s administration.

The US president has previously expressed concerns over the impact of Brexit on the peace process.

His spokeswoman said following the UK's decision to unilaterally extend grace periods last week that Mr Biden was "unequivocal" in his support for the Belfast Agreement.

Threats condemned

Separately, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Right Reverend Dr David Bruce, condemned heightened tensions and threats linked to opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol, and appealed to those in positions of responsibility to work together to find a solution.

“All of us in these islands have a responsibility to encourage the kind of dialogue that leads to fruitful engagement and resolution, and when this is difficult, and tensions are shifting, we have a responsibility to seek agreement and, where that is not immediately possible, to disagree well,” Dr Bruce said.

“Shifting tensions always make the ability to find solutions more difficult,” he said, adding that he did not underestimate the difficulties involved.

“I appeal to those tasked with finding solutions to do so thinking of the other, alongside their own deeply held positions, so that local tensions, or political strains between states, diminish.

“The challenges faced as a result of changing political relationships will be resolved because they have to be – none of us will emerge well if they are not – from the pensioner doing their weekly shop to the trader doing business across jurisdictions,” he said.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times