Northern Ireland’s agriculture minister Edwin Poots last night (Wednesday 2 February) announced he had instructed his officials to cease checks on agri-foods entering NI from Great Britain.
Citing legal advice that SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) checks on agri-food goods entering NI should not have been brought in without Stormont approval, Poots’ move is a direct challenge to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The protocol, part of the 2020 EU-UK withdrawal treaty, was designed to avoid a hard border between NI and the Republic of Ireland.
First Minister: resignation poised
In a new development (11am, Thursday 3 February), NI First Minister Paul Givan is reported to be preparing to resign today in protest at the protocol.
Givan is a member of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which opposes the protocol and has warned it would attempt to bring down the NI Executive if the UK government failed to trigger Article 16.
Givan is understood to have written a letter standing down from leading the NI Executive – a move that will force Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill to quit as Deputy First Minister and threaten the future of power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Fein.
EU-UK meeting today
Poots’ move and news of Givan's possible resignation came ahead of today's scheduled virtual meeting between Brexit minister Liz Truss and her EU counterpart, Maros Sefcovic, to continue negotiations on amending the protocol.
DUP member Poots has recently warned of making such a move which other Stormont parties and the Irish government said was unlawful.
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney last night said Poots’ instruction “breaches international law”.
Have NI checks stopped?
The BBC this morning said it was “unclear” whether officials had actually stopped the checks at midnight as Poots had instructed.
Interviewed on the BBC’s Today programme this morning, RTE correspondent Tony Connelly said there were “reports of some interaction between lorries and staff at Belfast and Larne” since Poots’ announcement but he couldn’t confirm if these constituted checks on goods.
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.”
Poots’ action is dividing the already polarised political situation in NI, with Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, labelling Poots’ action a “stunt” ahead of Northern Ireland Assembly elections due to take place on 5 May.
Northern Ireland minister Brandon Lewis, speaking on ITV’s Peston programme last night, indicated he had no prior notice of Poots’ action.
The FT referenced British officials confirming that the UK government was not pre-notified of the move and denying that it was part of a British plan to apply pressure on the EU.
Brandon repeated remarks made by Truss to the Belfast Telegraph last week that the UK would not step in if Poots moved to halt checks and said it was a “matter for the [Northern Ireland] Executive”.
"Obviously we'll be looking at the out workings of that, exactly what the legal advice is they have taken,” Lewis told Peston last night.
What happens next
Awaiting clarification on whether SPS checks had indeed ceased at NI’s major ports, a statement from the EU is expected this morning as Truss prepares to meet with Sefcovic.
Meanwhile Poots said he would “prepare a paper for Executive consideration in the near future to seek agreement on a way forward”.
The FT reported Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, saying Poots’ move could face legal challenges. “The first battle could come from within Northern Ireland’s civil service,” he said.