Northern Irish food and drink businesses have been advised to “continue to complete all paperwork and comply with relevant legislation” by the region’s main trade body after agriculture minister Edwin Poots said checks on agri-food goods arriving from Great Britain were to stop at midnight.
“Even if the number of checks is reduced for a period, the law has not changed”, said Michael Bell, executive director of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA).
Reports from Belfast and Larne ports early on Thursday suggested checks were continuing, though officials had not confirmed this at the time of writing.
“The message from Defra and Daera [Northern Ireland’s agriculture ministry] is that checks will carry on as normal today”, Shane Brennan, CEO of the Cold Chain Federation, said on social media.
In a controversial move, Poots said on Wednesday that the checks, which have been imposed since last year under the Northern Ireland protocol, would be ditched on the grounds they did not have “executive approval”
His Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was the only one of Northern Ireland’s main political parties to back Brexit but has railed against the UK’s settlement with the EU and the protocol, which it said effectively separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and could corral the region into a de facto economic union with EU member state Ireland.
Paul Givan, the DUP first minster of Northern Ireland’s devolved regional government, or executive, was reportedly set to quit on Thursday, according to the BBC, ahead of Northern Ireland assembly elections scheduled for May.
Michelle O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, said Poots’ announcement was a “stunt”. O’Neill’s Sinn Fein opposed Brexit and supported the protocol as it meant checks on goods do not have to be applied along the border in Ireland.
However, Poots said his announcement was based on legal advice after the NI executive, which is led by the DUP and Sinn Fein, last week declined to discuss the checks – which the DUP said were costing local businesses £2.5m a day.
Northern Ireland secretary of state Brandon Lewis said the ditching of the checks was “a matter for the Northern Ireland executive” and was “within their legal remit”.
However, the European Commission and the Irish government on Thursday described the move as “a breach of international law”, which London was responsible for addressing.
The announcements came ahead of a key meeting on Thursday between Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, and Maros Sefcovic, the Commission’s Brexit negotiator, and came after the UK’s under-pressure prime minister Boris Johnson last week accused the EU of implementing the Northern Ireland protocol in an “insane and pettifogging way”.
Local trade bodies reacted to Poots’ announcement by calling on the EU and the UK to come up with a solution that removed checks and facilated “frictionless” commerce.
“Long term, durable solutions to delivering frictionless GB-NI trade will be brought about by constructive negotiation between the UK and the EU,” NIFDA’s Bell said.
Seamus Leheny, policy manager in Northern Ireland for Logistics UK, posted on social media that “we would like no checks and minimum admin, for this to happen requires the UK and the EU to agree negotiated outcome”.
“Any long term, workable solution must be a negotiated solution between the EU and UK that removes friction GB-NI,” said Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium.
The Ulster Farmers’ Union declined to comment as it was “seeking clarity” about the situation.