A move by DUP Minister Edwin Poots to ‘order’ an end to Brexit-related checks at ports in the north of Ireland has been strongly condemned by nationalists but supported by the Tory government in London.
The unilateral decision by the Agriculture Minister to try to halt checks which ensure protections for animal, plant and public health follows a similar effort by him a year ago, and is of dubious legality. It has again raised the question of whether civil servants will comply with the demand.
Agri-food checks to maintain standards are required under the terms of the Irish Protocol of Brexit, which provides for the continuation of EU safety regulations in the north of Ireland following Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
Supported by anti-EU fundamentalists in the Tory government, many unionists have become determined to destroy what they call the ‘Irish Sea Border’.
Poots justified his action by claiming he was responding to a threat of legal action by loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson, but most commentators believe it is linked to the DUP’s historically low poll numbers, three months out from an Assembly election.
Sinn Fein said it was unlawful and “a stunt”. Assembly member John O’Dowd said that Poots was “perfectly aware” of the Executive’s position on the protocol.
“The protocol is the law,” he said, adding that he believed civil servants were “already taking advice on these matters.
“The civil service has its own guidance and protocols to work to and I have no doubt the civil service will be examining that very closely,” he said.
Sinn Féin spokesperson Declan Kearney said it was “a reckless stunt from a minister who is no stranger to political chaos”.
He said that Poots remains legally obliged to comply with commitments set out in the Withdrawal Agreement and the Protocol.
“He has previously outlined his own duty to carry out these checks in the Assembly, and accepted that failing to carry out his obligations may result in his Department facing claims for damages.
“This is a cynical attempt by the minister to shore up his own political position and that of his party as we face into the election.
“I call on him to reverse this decision immediately, and continue to carry out his legal obligations in line with the agreed position of the entire Executive.”
The Dublin government viewed the move to halt the checks that have been in place for over a year as a breach of international law.
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, warned: “I would remind everybody that the implementation of the protocol is part of international law. To deliberately frustrate obligations under that treaty I think would be a very serious matter indeed.
“It is essentially playing politics with legal obligations and I certainly hope that it doesn’t happen, as has been threatened and described.”
The Alliance Party said the DUP were “addicted to disruption”, and party leader Naomi Long said that people were tired of “grandstanding and instability” over the protocol and urged Poots to “step up and do the job or step aside”.
A one-sided intervention of a flailing Tory administration in London has not helped the situation. Last week, British Foreign Secretary and Brexit negotiator Liz Truss said the DUP’s repudiation of the protocol is a matter for the Stormont administration to resolve.
British Direct Ruler Brandon Lewis also washed his hands of the matter on Wednesday night, claiming that powers in regard to Brexit have been devolved to Belfast. He denied the move was a “stitch up” between the DUP and his government in London.
“Obviously, this is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive. It is something that is within their legal remit,” he insisted.
“We will be looking at the outworkings of that and exactly what legal advice that Edwin has taken.”