Brexit: Poots to decide ‘shortly’ on unilateral action to halt checks at NI ports

DUP may withdraw ministers soon over protocol, North’s Minister of Agriculture says

Northern Ireland's Minister of Agriculture has warned he will decide "shortly" whether to take unilateral action to halt post-Brexit checks at the North's ports.

Edwin Poots told BBC Radio Ulster he had sought legal advice after he attempted to bring a paper to the Northern Executive seeking approval for the checks on agri-food products.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Assembly member said he expected to receive the advice of senior counsel "imminently" and would make a decision after he considers the advice.

“If the advice leads me to a conclusion that the staff need to have the legal basis to operate there, which stems from having Executive approval, then I’ll have to act on that,” he said.

He also warned that the DUP could take action soon to withdraw its ministers from Stormont over the lack of progress on the Northern Ireland protocol.

“What we have currently is entirely unacceptable and if people think that is something that we’re just going to allow to grind on and on and on then that’s not going to happen,” he said.

"The European Union negotiators have been dragging their feet and there's a consequence for that and that consequence is coming down the line, and it's coming down the line very, very fast.

“This situation cannot go on much longer. If we’re not into days, then it’s weeks, but my suspicion is it’s more like days.”

The DUP and other unionist parties are opposed to the Northern Ireland protocol, the part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement that 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.

Mr Poots’s attempt to seek a vote on the checks last week was part of his party’s broader campaign against the protocol.

The DUP has 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.

He claims that recent court rulings mean the Executive must give its approval for the checks to continue.

The 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.

Had his paper been discussed at the Executive, under Stormont rules the DUP could have used its veto to block approval for the checks.

However, Sinn Féin used its veto to prevent it making it on to the agenda.

Political career

Meanwhile, Mr Poots said on Wednesday his political demise has “not just happened quite yet” after he failed to secure the nomination to stand as his party’s candidate in South Down in the Assembly elections, which are due in May.

The decision to select Diane Forsythe has to be ratified by the party's Executive.

Mr Poots is one of two DUP MLAs in Lagan Valley – the other is the First Minister Paul Givan – while the party leader Jeffrey Donaldson – currently the constituency's MP – is to seek election to the Assembly there in May.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster, he said he had "engaged with Sir Jeffrey [Donaldson] for two months on this issue" and he wanted to "facilitate the smooth transition for Sir Jeffrey to come back to the Northern Ireland Assembly".

“Everything I have done I have been doing in the interests of the party,” he said.