NI minister accused of breaching international law after order to halt Brexit food checks

2 February 2022, 17:47 | Updated: 3 February 2022, 07:27

Agriculture minister Edwin Poots, whose officials are responsible for carrying out Northern Ireland Protocol checks, said he had received legal advice which stated that he could order a halt to Northern Ireland Protocol checks.
Agriculture minister Edwin Poots, whose officials are responsible for carrying out Northern Ireland Protocol checks, said he had received legal advice which stated that he could order a halt to Northern Ireland Protocol checks. Picture: Alamy

By Sophie Barnett

Northern Ireland's agriculture minister has been accused of breaching international law after he ordered a halt to Brexit agri-food checks at the nation's ports.

Agriculture minister Edwin Poots said on Wednesday he had received legal advice which stated that he could order a halt to Northern Ireland Protocol checks.

However lorries were still being received at a Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs checking facility in Belfast Port early 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.

Mr Poots said on Wednesday he has ordered his permanent secretary to stop the checks at ports on farming and food items coming from the rest of the UK from midnight.

A spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) refused to confirm on Wednesday if the order will be carried out.

The UK Government has said it will not intervene.

Speaking at Stormont, Mr Poots, former leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), said: "I have taken legal advice in relation to my position from senior counsel. Earlier today I received that legal advice.

"It stated that at present there is presently no Executive approval for SPS checks. The implementation of SPS checks requires Executive approval.

"A decision to initiate or continue such checks could not be validly taken in the absence of Executive approval.

Read more: RAF jets intercept Russian 'Bear' bombers flying to UK as Boris warns Putin on Ukraine

Read more: US sends thousands of troops to Europe amid tensions over Ukraine

"The advice concluded that I can direct the checks to cease in the absence of Executive approval.

"I have now issued a formal instruction to my permanent secretary to halt all checks that were not in place on December 31 2020 from midnight tonight.

"I will prepare a paper for Executive consideration in the near future to seek agreement on a way forward."

It is yet unclear whether the senior civil servant in his department, Anthony Harbinson, will comply with the order.

DUP rivals at Stormont insist the civil service has a duty to comply with Stormont’s legal obligations to carry out the checks under the terms of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

Northern Ireland's deputy first minister Michelle O'Neill, of Sinn Fein, tweeted: "This stunt is an attempt by the DUP to unlawfully interfere with domestic, and international law.

"DUP fixated on their own priorities, which are clearly at odds with where the wider community is at. Health, Jobs, Housing, Cost of living crisis is where the rest of us are focused."

Read more: Boris Johnson 'faces 12k fines for party breaches' as three more Tories call for him to go

Meanwhile, Alliance Party MLA John Blair said Edwin Poots and the DUP were "addicted to disruption", adding the move is "completely unacceptable".

"There is a legal obligation upon the minister to provide checks at ports, this has been made perfectly clear to him by his own officials and through previous advice from Defra," Mr Blair said.

"Here we are again at a time of uncertainty and the minister is behaving like a wrecking ball, bringing more uncertainty to our sectors and creating disruption the best he can.

"It is completely unacceptable and unsuitable at this time.

"This is a time for working with others to find solutions."

The move comes after Mr Poots last week failed to secure the wider approval of the Stormont Executive to continue checks on agri-food produce arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

His bid to seek a ministerial vote at the Executive was branded a stunt by other parties.

They insist the Executive has already agreed that Mr Poots' department has responsibility for carrying out the checks and he does not have the authority to halt processes that are required under the international treaty.