Poots suggests NI protocol should be put to a referendum

UK-EU agreement changes Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, outgoing DUP leader says

Outgoing DUP Leader Edwin Poots said the EU ‘seem to be hanging their hat’ on a Swiss-style solution — an alignment on veterinary and food standards — but that ‘isn’t going to happen in reality’. Photograph: Mark Marlow/PA Wire

Outgoing DUP Leader Edwin Poots said the EU ‘seem to be hanging their hat’ on a Swiss-style solution — an alignment on veterinary and food standards — but that ‘isn’t going to happen in reality’. Photograph: Mark Marlow/PA Wire

 

Outgoing Democratic Unionist Party leader Edwin Poots has suggested the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol be put to a referendum.

The post-Brexit arrangements are undemocratic and change the constitutional position of the North, and if they can’t be scrapped then a vote is needed on the change, he said.

Speaking in the Stormont Assembly, the North’s agriculture minister said the fundamental issues around the protocol were whether it was democratic and whether it changed the region’s constitutional status within the UK.

“And it does change the constitution,” he said. “Therefore, if you want to change the constitution you should ask the people.”

Questioned by SDLP Brexit spokesman Matthew O’Toole about the benefits of the protocol, Mr Poots said if he “is a democrat, he will want to ensure with me that either the people are asked to support this protocol by referendum or indeed that we will remove the protocol and find another means of doing things.”

Mr Poots added that there “are other means of doing things” which would protect the EU single market and prevent borders on the island of Ireland or the Irish Sea.

Last week, he put a solution to European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic, he said.

“All of these things are entirely achievable if the EU wants to be entirely reasonable as opposed to being entirely unreasonable.”

The EU “seem to be hanging their hat” on a Swiss-style solution — an alignment on veterinary and food standards — but that “isn’t going to happen in reality”, he added.

The UK has asked the EU to extend grace periods on checks and inspections for certain goods — as well as a ban on some chilled meat products like sausages and mince — exported from Britain.

Mr Poots said when the grace periods end on the movement of goods between Britain and the North — particularly for retail goods — the “situation will become impossible”.

Port checks

The Stormont minister ordered a halt to permanent check facilities at ports in the North. Civil servants have advised him that works can not recommence because contractors are seeking compensation over the delays, he told the assembly.

Because it was a “controversial” decision any move to restart works would be cross-party approval by the power-sharing Executive, he added.

Told ports were desperately seeking certainty and clarity over what their legal obligations will be on checks in inspections once the grace periods end, Mr Poots said he hoped that would come “over the course of the next number of weeks.”

“It is for the UK government to make that decision,” he said.

South Belfast MLA Mr O’Toole said food exports from Britain to the EU have fallen “sharply” since Brexit because they were “stuck in warehouses, with produce going out of date as quick as the average DUP leadership.”

“But exports from Northern Ireland going south and beyond into the wider EU market have shot up,” he said.

“Last week’s CSO figures show exports from Northern Ireland doubling by both volume and value. Meanwhile food producers here have unfettered access into Britain.

“Why do you want to deprive our amazing food producers of one the most advantageous export positions on the planet?”

But Mr Poots said the idea that the Protocol was a “win win” situation with dual access for the North to both the British and EU markets was “delusional” as it was hampering goods coming in from Britain.

“We are taking a battering as a result of the protocol,” he added.

Sinn Féin’s Stormont economy spokeswoman Caoimhe Archibald said the “wholly negative presentation” of the protocol by some needs to be challenged.

“We need to see more focus on building on the special status the protocol affords the north and unique access to both the British market and the EU single market to help attract investors and create jobs,” she said.

“This can help to grow, develop and rebalance the economy in the north, grow the all island economy and create not just more but better jobs and more opportunities for young people.”