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UK Border Force officers at the NI Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Northern Ireland Point of Entry site on Milewater Road in Belfast at the Port of Belfast. Liam McBurney/PA
The protocol

EU and British Govt say agri-food checks in NI ports still continuing despite Poots order

Stormon’s agriculture minister ordered an end to checks on certain goods last night.

LAST UPDATE | 3 Feb 2022

CHECKS ON CERTAIN goods entering Northern Ireland are continuing to take place, despite an order from the DUP’s Agriculture Minister to stop checks last night.

Minister Edwin Poots, whose officials are responsible for carrying out checks under the Northern Ireland Protocol, ordered his permanent secretary to stop checks on agricultural goods into the North at midnight last night.

The direction itself relates to sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks required by the protocol. The customs procedures on Irish Sea trade are unaffected by his instruction.

Both Downing Street and the EU Commission have said that the checks are continuing to take place despite the order from Poots last night.

“As we speak checks are continuing to take place at ports in Northern Ireland, as they have done before,” a spokesperson for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.

“We are monitoring the situation closely and keeping the legal position under review.”

Speaking in the Dáil this afternoon, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said that the Irish government’s position on the issue is “very clear”.

“The British government has signed an international agreement which includes the Protocol of Northern Ireland as part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement. That is now international law and the British government has an obligation to act in a way that’s consistent with international law,” Coveney said.

He said the government doesn’t regard Poots’ decision as “consistent with the obligations the United Kingdom has under the protocol.

“My understanding is the checks are continuing today whilst while senior officials try to get legal clarity on this issue,” he said.

European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said the EU’s observers in Northern Ireland were satisfied the required checks were still being carried out.

“We have seen this announcement, obviously we are monitoring the situation on the ground – we have experts who are on the ground in Northern Ireland precisely in relation to the issue of checks,” he said.

The “preliminary information” from those experts “is indeed that those checks are continuing”.

Malmer would not be drawn on whether or not the Brexit trade deal would be suspended if the requirements of the Northern Ireland Protocol were not met.

“I’m not going to get into speculation about what we would undertake in case the checks were to stop … for the moment our indications are that the checks are ongoing.”

Downing Street has said that whether or not the checks take place is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive and not the UK Government.

Calls for clarity

There have been calls from port workers in Northern Ireland for the local Government to provide clarity on the situation.

Seamus Leheny of Logistics NI said the sector has been plunged into confusion following the order from Poots.

Leheny said businesses received advice to continue to complete paperwork.

“There is a lot of confusion and a lot of anxiety with businesses, they weren’t too sure what they had to do, did they still have to fulfil the administration with regards to moving products of animal origin in here,” he told the PA news agency.

“Generally the advice this morning from government departments is that you must still complete the paperwork to move goods in here. I’m not really too sure what is happening at the border control posts, we’ve not been told what is happening yet… but at the moment we have been told to keep doing the customs and keep doing the phytosanitary paperwork.”

He added: “We just need some stability and clarity, and that’s what is lacking.

For the past year businesses have had obstacle after obstacle… we just need some calm heads in government and, ideally, the EU won’t make any rash decisions based on today and that they continue discussions on the Protocol and come to an agreed negotiation which would ultimately mean we have far fewer checks, if any, required and we reduce the amount of administration required as well.

Leheny said around 85% of movements do not require any checks, 12% need just paperwork checked and 3% require a physical inspection.

He said moving checks to the Irish border would be a “massive problem” with 12,000 goods vehicles crossing the border every day.

‘Extremely unhelpful’

Speaking earlier today, European Commissioner Mairéad McGuinness described the order by Poots to stop checks on certain goods at Northern Ireland’s ports from this morning as “extremely unhelpful”.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland programme, McGuinness criticised the order.

“I think, to put it at its mildest, this is extremely unhelpful to have this news at this time of a new year, when all efforts are being made on our side… to find solutions with the United Kingdom to specific problems,” she said.

“This announcement has created uncertainty and unpredictability and certainly no stability. I’m not sure what the purpose of this movie is.”

McGuinness said checks on goods into Northern Ireland is required to protect the European Single Market and to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, and that ending checks was not a constructive way of resolving issues with the NI Protocol.

She added that there will be a call between UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic later today.

The comments were echoed by a European Commission spokesman who said “the protocol is the one and only solution we have found with the UK to protect the Good Friday Agreement.”

The spokesperson said Sefcovic will continue discussions with Truss on finding durable solutions for the people of Northern Ireland.

“He will recall that controls on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain are a key element of the protocol.

“They are necessary for Northern Irish business and citizens to continue to benefit from access to the single market for goods.

“They are also necessary to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

“The European Commission remains steadfast in our efforts to facilitate the implementation of the protocol, while safeguarding the integrity of the EU’s single market,” the European Commission spokesperson said in a statement.


The UK’s Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, said last night that his officials will not get involved in the dispute over the implementation of agri-food checks.

Speaking on ITV last night, Lewis said the issue was a matter for officials in the North. 

“Obviously this is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive, it is something that is within their legal remit, obviously we will be looking at the outworkings has taken, exactly what the legal advice is that Edwin has taken, but one of the frustrations is, this I have to say is something we’ve been saying to the European Union for some time, was the kind of thing that we could see happening,” he said.

“It’s exactly the sort of thing that we have been warning about in terms of the stability of the executive and the decisions the Executive ministers will take in order to make sure that products can move from Great Britain to Northern Ireland in a way that they always have done.”

But this morning, Simon Hoare, the Tory chairman of the Northern Ireland Select Committee in the House of Commons, suggested the reputation of the UK was at stake if the protocol was breached.

“In relation to NI Protocol checks: I’m a Conservative. I believe in the rule of law and adhering to obligations we voluntarily entered,” he tweeted.

“There’s no ifs and buts on this. The reputation of the UK on these matters is important. Anyone who cares about the UK should feel the same.”

Other parties 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.

But Poots said legal advice he had sought on the issue supported his view that he was entitled to stop the checks.

A spokesman for Poots’ department said: “The minister has received senior counsel advice and has issued an instruction on that basis.”

Asked whether officials would comply with Poots’ direction and whether hauliers should expect checks to be carried out today, the Daera spokesman said: “Nothing further to add.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has said the decision to halt Northern Ireland Protocol checks would be a “breach of international law”.

“If a political decision is taken by a minister in Northern Ireland to stop all checks in ports on goods coming across the Irish Sea, coming into Northern Ireland, that is effectively a breach of international law.

“And I would remind everybody that the protocol is part of an international agreement.

“It was agreed and ratified by the UK and the EU. And its implementation is not only part of an international treaty, but it is part of international law.

“And so to deliberately frustrate obligations under that treaty I think would be a very serious matter indeed.

“It’s essentially playing politics with legal obligations. And I certainly hope that it doesn’t happen, as has been threatened.”

While he did not name Poots or the DUP, Coveney said he suspected the move was “far more about politics than it is an effort to try and find compromise”.

He told the Seanad: “We should also put on the record that the protocol was designed and conceived and agreed to protect the Good Friday Agreement at the time, in the context of the fallout on this island of Brexit, and all its dimensions fully recognise the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as set out in the Good Friday Agreement.”

With reporting from Niall O’Connor and Stephen McDermott.

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