Northern Ireland’s agriculture minister has ordered all Brexit checks on food and farm products to be stopped from midnight in a unilateral move that will set him on a collision course with Brussels.
The former leader of the Democratic Unionist party Edwin Poots threatened the move last week after he failed to get the backing of other parties in Stormont to intervene in the face of a delayed resolution to the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol.
And on Wednesday night he carried through the threat following legal advice.
“I have taken legal advice in relation to my position from senior counsel. Earlier today, I received that legal advice,” he told the Stormont assembly.
“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 31 December 2020 from midnight tonight.”
But Sinn Féin, with whom DUP shares power, said it was an “unlawful” stunt aimed at burnishing the party’s hardline credentials on the protocol ahead of local elections in May.
The deputy first minister, Michelle O’Neill, said in a tweet: “This stunt is an attempt by the DUP to unlawfully interfere with domestic and international law.
“DUP [are] fixated on their own priorities, which are clearly at odds with where the wider community is at.”
There were reports last week after the visit of the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, to Northern Ireland that Westminster would not oppose Poots’ mooted move.
The Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, indicated on Wednesday evening that the UK government would not intervene over the DUP’s decision.
“Obviously this is a matter for the Northern Ireland executive; it is something that is within their legal remit,” he told ITV’s Peston.
“Obviously we’ll be looking at the outworkings of that, exactly what the legal advice is they have taken.
“One of the frustrations is this, I have to say, is something we have been saying to the European Union for some time was the kind of thing that we could see happening.”
The controversial checks on food and agriculture products came into force as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol signed by Boris Johnson and the EU to get his wider Brexit deal over the line.
However, many of the checks, including those on chilled foods and meats such as British sausages, have not been implemented after unilateral action taken by the former Brexit minister Lord Frost.
But British businesses still face significant paperwork to comply with EU customs codes that are observed in Northern Ireland as a result of the compromise arrangements struck between the prime minister and Brussels.
Other new barriers include a ban on the import of seed potatoes from Britain in Northern Ireland and soil, which has affected garden centres and tree nurseries.
Sinn Féin says that Stormont has a legal obligation to conduct the checks, and that the executive or local cabinet agreed in May 2020 to implement the controls.
John O’Dowd, Sinn Féin’s member of the legislative assembly for Upper Bann, said: “The protocol is the law – the DUP signed off in the executive that they would adhere to the regulations in the protocol.”
Manufacturing Northern Ireland advised all its members to continue to comply with the rules. “Regardless of events, the legal and administrative advice is that these are international obligations on traders and they should continue to meet those obligations whether or not there’s a guy with a hi-vis to greet them at the port,” it said in a tweet.
Truss has taken over Brexit negotiations from Frost, who resigned before Christmas.
A spokesperson for Northern Ireland’s Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, which performs the checks at ports and airports, said: “The minister has received senior counsel advice and has issued an instruction on that basis.