The United Kingdom’s fraught relationship with the European Union over the status of Northern Ireland was thrown into yet further turmoil on Thursday (3 February), after the Northern Ireland executive announced that it was calling for a unilateral withdrawal from key Protocol commitments on border checks.
Edwin Poots, Northern Ireland’s minister of agriculture, issued instructions to border agents working at Northern Irish ports that they should no longer carry out sanitary and phytosanitary checks on agri-food products coming into Northern Ireland, as from midnight on Thursday.
But, in a sign of the administrative chaos which is threatening to engulf Northern Ireland, port officials were reported to be widely disregarding the advice from the agriculture minister and continuing to check lorries arriving from Great Britain. Hauliers were also being advised to continue with existing import procedures and paperwork.
“There have been no operational changes on the ground as yet while officials in DAERA [the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs] seek further advice,” George Eustice, the UK environment secretary, told the House of Commons on Thursday.
Poots’s directive is in clear contravention of the Northern Ireland protocol, which requires SPS checks on imports into the region from Great Britain.
These are needed because Northern Ireland is effectively a gateway to the EU single market – given the lack of border infrastructure between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
It’s Northern Ireland’s responsibility, minister tells parliament
The government in London did not endorse Poots’s move – but also failed to condemn it.
“Overarching responsibility for international relations rests with the UK government. But delivering many of the requirements under the Northern Ireland protocol, including agrifood checks, are a devolved matter, and responsibility for doing so falls to DAERA under the Northern Ireland executive,” Eustice told the parliament.
“This includes checks at Northern Irish points of entry”.
Brandon Lewis, the government’s Northern Ireland secretary, viewed the move as vindication for the government’s ongoing campaign to make major changes to the way the Northern Ireland protocol works.
“It’s exactly the sort of thing we have been warning about, in terms of the stability of the executive and the decisions the executive ministers will take in order to ensure that products can move from Great Britain to Northern Ireland in a way that they always have done,” Lewis said in an interview.
But the European Commission predictably saw things differently, calling Poots’s decision “unhelpful”, and saying that it would create “further uncertainty and unpredictability for businesses and citizens in Northern Ireland”.
Other politicians were even more forthright, with Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney saying the move represented a “breach of international law”.
The chair of the European Parliament’s international trade committee, Bernd Lange, also weighed in, describing the move on Twitter as “a clear break of the NI protocol”, and one which “will have serious consequences”.
Truss – Šefčovič meeting yields no progress
The whole issue provided a stormy backdrop to the latest meeting between Commission vice-president Maroŝ Šefčovič and UK foreign secretary Liz Truss, which was held later on Thursday.
These talks proved as inconclusive as previous such encounters. Truss tweeted after the meeting: “Good discussion with Maroŝ Šefčovič on Northern Ireland Protocol … Look forward to seeing him next week in London. Our teams will continue intensive talks.”
Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland assembly’s first minister, Paul Givan, announced his resignation on Thursday, in protest at the lack of progress in reforming the protocol’s provisions, or triggering its de-activation.
The move effectively strips the executive of most of its powers, but leaves individual ministers, including Poots, to remain in place on a caretaker basis. The assembly was in any case due to be dissolved soon prior to elections in May.
Northern Irish politics in disarray
Indeed, the Northern Ireland fiasco is primarily an issue of politics rather than of trade.
The Democratic Unionist Party, of which agriculture minister Edwin Poots is a former leader, has been arguing loudly, and unsuccessfully, for the protocol to be abandoned.
This is in light of the trade barriers that it creates between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of the fact that the protocol has indirectly delivered a big boost to trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Neither development is a comfortable one for a party which is dedicated to keeping Northern Ireland as an integral part of the UK – and whose main challenger in the May elections, Sinn Fein, is committed to pushing towards Irish reunification.
Meanwhile, the UK government has come under fire from its domestic critics for not overriding Poots’s directive on checks at ports.
There is concern that by failing to do so, it has in effect enabled a breach of an international agreement, namely the Northern Ireland protocol – and the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement to which it is annexed.