Border checks continue in NI ports despite Poots’s order

‘Extremely unhelpful’: EU Commissioner criticises DUP minister on intervention

Northern Ireland businesses importing animal-based foods from Britain were still being directed through border checks at the North's ports on Thursday as civil servants seek independent legal advice on the decision of the DUP's Edwin Poots to order a halt to agri-food checks at the ports.

The UK’s Environment Secretary, George Eustace MP, told the House of Commons on Thursday that the checks “were continuing, there is no change at the moment.”

He said a direction has been issued and officials in the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) in Northern Ireland were "taking their own legal advice as accounting officers on elements related to that."

The UK government has said the operation of checks is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive.

At the border control post at Belfast port on Thursday the checks were continuing. The Irish Times witnessed lorries arriving and being directed to bays by officials wearing Daera-branded high-vis jackets.

Officials from Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) and the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) told industry groups on a call that they should continue following procedures for border checks at the ports.

Customs authority

One industry group said the UK's customs authority, HM Revenue and Customs, were still carrying out customs checks on goods arriving into the North from Britain under the Northern Ireland Protocol, the post-Brexit trading rules covering goods arriving into the North from Britain.

“A lot of people thought that they would just stop everything. The advice to industry is that to keep doing what you have been doing until we know more,” said Seamus Leheny, Northern Ireland policy manager for the industry group Logistics UK.

There was confusion within businesses transporting goods through the ports following the unilateral announcement from Mr Poots with the North’s border control posts remaining open.

“It has been relatively quiet but it appears that they are still staffed. I don’t really know the nature of the checks that are taking place and who is doing them. Guidance from Defra and Daera is that you keep doing the paperwork as you are meant to,” said Mr Leheny.

He urged Brussels not to react “rashly” to Mr Poots’s move but to seek a resolution through ongoing discussions with the UK government where a solution is being sought to the dispute between London and Brussels over the operation of the protocol.

“This doesn’t give us any clarity or stability for businesses. A year on we are still looking for clarity and stability. We aren’t getting it. This just increases the anxiety and frustrations amongst businesses. We just need a period of calm. We are looking for calm heads,” he said.

“The mood music has been quite good for negotiations in recent weeks and we want that to continue and the only way to get around this is a negotiated outcome on the protocol that makes life easier for everyone.”

Commission criticism

The European Commission described Mr Poots’s decision to order a halt on checks as “unhelpful” and has said it was the responsibility of the British government to respect its international obligations.

“The European Commission has been working tirelessly with the UK government to address practical challenges related to the implementation of the protocol,” a commission spokesman said.

“The decision by the Northern Irish Minister for Agriculture is therefore unhelpful. It creates further uncertainly and unpredictability for businesses and citizens in Northern Ireland,” he added.

“The European Commission will closely monitor developments in Northern Ireland pursuant to this announcement. It recalls the responsibility of the UK Government for the respect of the international obligations it has entered into.”

The spokesman said that protocol arrangements were the “one and only solution we have found” to protect the Belfast Agreement.

The commission's point-man on the issue, Maros Sefcovic, is set to speak to Britain's foreign secretary Liz Truss on Thursday as part of ongoing discussions on how to adjust the protocol to ease its implementation.

Post-Brexit, Northern Ireland is remaining in line with the single market while Britain diverges, in order to avoid checks being required on the island of Ireland.

When speaking to Ms Truss, Mr Sefcovic will stress that controls on goods crossing the Irish Sea from Britain are a “key element of the protocol”.

“They are necessary for Northern Irish business and citizens to continue to benefit from access to the single market for goods. They are also necessary to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland,” the Commission spokesman said.

Tweaks to the arrangements proposed by the EU “reflect our contacts with Northern Irish stakeholders and would immediately and significantly help operators on the ground”, the spokesman added.

‘Breach of law’

European Commissioner Mairead McGuinness earlier described as “extremely unhelpful” Mr Poots’s decision to halt post-Brexit checks at ports which would apply to some agri-food coming into the North from Britain.

She said the North was in a unique situation which required checks on goods to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Mr Poots’ move was “absolutely a breach of international law”, she said. That was a major problem as both sides needed to be able to trust each other. There would be a routine call between European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic and UK foreign secretary Liz Truss on Thursday at which the issue would be discussed.

The action does not help businesses in Northern Ireland, she added.

The SDLP said Mr Poots's move was designed to help the DUP's poll ratings. "It's a stunt by the DUP to find some political momentum following a series of bad polls because of the mess they've made of Brexit," party MP Claire Hanna told RTÉ radio's Today with Claire Byrne show.

Meanwhile, the chief executive of representative body Manufacturing Northern Ireland said Mr Poots should publish the legal advice he received which led to his decision to order officials to halt post-Brexit checks at ports,.

Speaking on RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland, Stephen Kelly said that his members would continue as before as it was their responsibility for the paperwork to move items.

Checks were still taking place on Thursday morning and Mr Kelly said his advice was “continue as before”.

Mr Kelly said the checks were “international obligations on businesses”. The business community in Northern Ireland had made it clear that they needed stability and certainty. “At the moment we have neither of these.”

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said the North’s Minister of Agriculture Edwin Poots’s announcement was “not helpful” and “adds to the uncertainty” for businesses and citizens in Northern Ireland.

Mr Varadkar said it seemed to him that it was “a political decision rather than one that was based on the public interest”.

Speaking in the Dáil on Thursday, Mr Varadkar said it was noteworthy that Mr Poots’s decision was not supported by the Executive in Northern Ireland or by the majority of members in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

“Whether people agree with the protocol or not, surely on democratic grounds it was not the right decision to make, because it was done without the consent of the Executive and without the support of the Northern Ireland Assembly,” Mr Varadkar said.

Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence Simon Coveney said his understanding was that checks are continuing today whie senior officials tried to legal clarity on the issue.

“I was in contact with the Secretary of State [for Northern Ireland] last night, and I’ve been in contact with vice president Šefcovic of the [EUROPEAN]Commission on this issue this morning again,” he said.

Mr Coveney said the Irish Government’s position was very clear and that the British Government had signed an international agreement which includes the protocol for Northern Ireland as part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

“That is now international law and the British government has an obligation to act in a way that’s consistent with international law,” he said.

“Last night, the Minister for Agriculture Edwin Poots in the Executive in Northern Ireland said that he would instruct his officials to stop SPS checks in ports in Northern Ireland and goods coming across the Irish Sea.

"We don't regard that as consistent with the obligations that the United Kingdom has under the protocol."

Sinn Féin deputy leader Pearse Doherty said it was “a cynical attempt” by Mr Poots “to shore off his own political position and that of his party” as Northern Ireland faces into Assembly elections in a number of weeks.

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