Some 24 hours after a dramatic announcement by a Northern Ireland government minister that he had ordered officials at NI ports to cease checks on agri-foods imports from Great Britain, reports suggest those checks are still being carried out.
The SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) checks on agri-food goods entering NI are a requirement of the Northern Ireland Protocol, designed to avoid a hard border between NI and the Republic of Ireland and incorporated into the 2020 EU-UK withdrawal treaty.
Agriculture minister Edwin Poots is a member of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has long opposed the protocol on the argument that it creates a barrier between the province and the rest of the United Kingdom.
However both media and EU observers today (Thursday 3 February) report that checks are still being carried out at Belfast Port and Larne, despite Poots' order.
The political backdrop to Poots’ move became more tumultuous this afternoon when NI First Minister and DUP member Paul Givan resigned in protest at the protocol.
In doing so, Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill is automatically removed from her role as, under Stormont’s power-sharing rules, one cannot hold office without the other.
As the future of power-sharing goverment in NI hung in the balance, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis described the DUP’s decision to withdraw the First Minister from the NI Executive as “extremely disappointing”.
“I urge them to reinstate the First Minister immediately to ensure the necessary delivery of public services for the citizens of Northern Ireland,” he said.
‘No change to checks – yet’
In the House of Commons today, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs George Eustice said there “have been no operational changes on the ground as yet”.
This observation was echoed by European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer, who told reporters that EU experts on the ground were satisfied that the checks agreed in the Withdrawal Agreement are still being carried out.
Last night business group Manufacturing NI said that checks should continue in order to comply with the international treaty.
In a statement posted on Twitter, the group said: “Regardless of events, the legal and administrative advice is that these are international obligations on traders and they should continue to meet those obligations whether or not there’s a guy with a hi-vis to greet them at the port.”
At the same time O’Neill labelled Poots’ action a “stunt” ahead of NI Assembly elections due to take place on 5 May.
Meanwhile prime minister Boris Johnson told reporters during a visit to Blackpool today that it was “crazy” to “have checks on goods that are basically circulating within the single market of the United Kingdom”.