Edwin Poots, the North's Minister of Agriculture, has ordered his officials to halt post-Brexit checks at ports as part of the DUP's campaign against the Northern Ireland protocol.
Mr Poots said he took the decision, which would apply to some agri-food coming into the North from Britain, after he received legal advice stating there was “presently no Executive approval” for sanitary and phytosanitary checks.
It is not yet clear if the department’s permanent secretary Anthony Harbinson would comply with the order. Asked if the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) would follow the Minister’s order, a spokesman said: “The Minister has received senior counsel advice and has issued an instruction on that basis.”
Lorries were still being received at a Daera checking facility in Belfast Port earlier on Thursday morning. Several vehicles entered the facility after the ferry arrived from Cairnryan in Scotland at 6am.
A staff member declined to confirm to the PA news agency whether the Northern Ireland Protocol checks were continuing.
Announcing his ordering of a halt to the checks, Mr Poots told reporters on Wednesday that “a decision to initiate or continue such checks could not be validly taken in the absence of Executive approval” and therefore the advice “concluded that I can direct the checks to cease”.
“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.”
He said he would prepare a paper for the Northern Ireland Executive’s consideration “in the near future to seek agreement on a way forward”.
The move was strongly condemned by the Irish Government and by Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Alliance Party, who questioned the legal basis for Mr Poots’s action and said it was more about politics than attempting to find a solution to the issues around the protocol.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said such a move would be "a breach of international law".
He said the protocol was part of an international agreement, and “to deliberately frustrate obligations under that treaty would be a very serious matter indeed”.
“It would be essentially playing politics with legal obligations,” he said, and urged that the negotiations between the UK and the European Union on the protocol should be allowed to continue.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill described it as a “stunt” and an “attempt by the DUP to unlawfully interfere with domestic and international law”.
It is understood the UK government has been in touch with the Northern Executive and is considering the details, including the legal position. A UK government spokesman appeared to indicate it would not seek to intervene, saying “the operation of checks” was a matter for the Executive, adding that there were “significant problems with the protocol which urgently need fixing”.
UK foreign secretary Liz Truss is to speak to European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic on Thursday, the spokesman said.