Lorry driver at night

A Belfast court has overruled a call to end checks by NI’s agriculture minister, pending further legal challenges

Port checks were continuing on food dispatched to Northern Ireland from Great Britain on Thursday after agriculture minister Edwin Poots’ attempt to ditch the inspections was thrown out by Belfast’s High Court last week.

Poots since said he had been given “sound legal advice” the checks could be stopped as they had not been signed off by Northern Ireland’s devolved government, or executive. But the court said the minister’s ruling, which was announced on 2 February, could not be implemented until two legal challenges were considered.

Poots’ attempt to end the checks had already largely been ignored before the court intervened, with business groups such as the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association advising members on 3 February to carry on as usual, in comments later echoed by Defra secretary George Eustice.

The controversial checks were imposed last year as part of the Northern Ireland protocol, and were opposed from the outset by Poots’ Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the sole Brexit backer among Northern Ireland’s five main political parties.

The controls were justified by proponents as a means to ensure similar measures were not needed along the border on the island of Ireland, after the UK, and with it Northern Ireland, left the EU. But the DUP alleged the protocol effectively separated Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and put it in a nascent economic union with EU member state Ireland.

Poots’ view last week that he was legally entitled to halt to the checks was backed by Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis, who said the situation was a matter for the executive at Stormont. 

But the EU and the Irish government said Poots’ order broke international law as the checks were agreed by the EU and the British government, which in recent weeks has stepped up demands the protocol be revised.

No end in sight over debate on checks for food ‘imports’ to Northern Ireland

Poots’ move came hot on the heels of prime minister Boris Johnson accusing the EU of implementing the protocol in an “insane and pettifogging way”. Johnson this week repeated his criticism of the EU, saying the government would suspend checks on goods entering Northern Ireland if the bloc did not demonstrate “common sense”.

Northern Ireland business groups largely want an end to the checks but have said any arrangement should be negotiated by London and Brussels.

The dispute led Poots’ DUP colleague Paul Givan to resign as first minister of Northern Ireland’s executive the day after the party’s unilateral attempt to stop the checks, which look like being a central issue in campaigning ahead of May elections. The DUP said it will not agree to reviving the executive unless the protocol is revised.

“Anybody who thinks we are going to roll over and accept this will have to waken up the reality we are not”, Poots said on 8 February, ahead of protests against the protocol scheduled for later in the week.

A day after Poots’ warning, the Commons Public Accounts Committee published a report on Brexit that claimed “both the UK and EU have recognised that there are issues with the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol”, which the committee warned ”does not have support among significant parts of the Northern Ireland community”.

Opponents of the protocol in Northern Ireland have claimed it is costing the region £2.5m a day, though supporters have said it has led to increased commerce on the island of Ireland and said it could make Northern Ireland a more attractive destination for foreign investment due to it remaining in the EU single market, unlike the rest of the UK.

But according to the committee, businesses ”have faced challenges operating under the Northern Ireland protocol which need to be resolved”, mentioning ”significant increased costs as well as delays in moving goods because of protocol requirements”.

The committee’s report, which focused on the wider impact of Brexit on the UK, said “new border arrangements” with the EU ”have added costs to business”, along with “wider global pressures” and the coronavirus pandemic. EU checks on British goods began more than a year ago after the two sides agreed a post-Brexit deal.

”It may not be possible to separate out the impact of these individual elements on the UK’s trade with the EU, but it is clear that EU exit has had an impact”, the committee reported.

Britain began implementing a system of controls on goods from the EU a month ago, with physical checks due to start in July. The island of Ireland has been so far been exempt from the measures.