Brexit: Northern Ireland halts construction of import inspection facilities

Uncertainty around the future of the Northern Ireland protocol has seen the construction of purpose-built inspection facilities at ports halted.

There will still be checks on agricultural and food products, but these will be carried out in existing buildings that have been repurposed for the post-Brexit task, the country’s agriculture minister has said.

Gordon Lyons of the DUP said that recruitment of inspection staff for the new port facilities at places like Belfast and Larne had been stopped, and charges levied on traders bringing goods from Great Britain into Northern Ireland were also shelved.

Mr Lyons said his decision was based on “practical difficulties” caused by the protocol, which came as part of the UK’s trade deal with the EU.

The agreement struck saw trade checks enacted on products travelling between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, however these regulatory and customs checks were moved to the Irish Sea to avoid a border on the island of Ireland.

A grace period has been in place since 31 December, but there has still been disruption on transporting supermarket goods and this could intensify when it ends on 1 April.

Mr Lyons said: “I’ve just let executive colleagues know that today I instructed my department to halt work on a range of issues relating to work at the ports.

“This is in and around a number of areas, first of all further infrastructure, any further infrastructure builds; the additional recruitment of staff; and also the charging at the ports.”

Other members of the Northern Ireland executive, which is made up of several political parties, have called for an emergency meeting.

It comes as unionist politicians called on the UK government to take unilateral action over the protocol.

Unionists are unhappy about the checks that need to take place on goods travelling between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, saying it drives an economic wedge between the regions.

Mr Lyons said: “We don’t know what the movement of retail goods from Great Britain into Northern Ireland is going to look like, we don’t have the support in place through the digital assistance scheme yet either, and all of the SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) issues around the end of the grace period are just so uncertain and it’s real nightmare for us and it’s going to be causing us an awful lot of problems.”

The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) has called for an emergency meeting of the Northern Ireland national executive to discuss the matter.

SDLP deputy leader and Northern Ireland’s infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon said: “I have requested an urgent meeting of the Executive this evening to address the unilateral action taken by Minister Gordon Lyons.

“This is a five party executive facing two significant crises – a global pandemic and the impact of Brexit.

“We should be taking decisions together in the substantial common interests of the people we represent – not using political office for divisive stunts.

“This decision is controversial, cross-cutting and cannot be put into effect without executive agreement.”

Michelle O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister and a member of Sinn Fein, tweeted: “Previously, when the former department of agriculture, environment and rural affairs minister took a similar stance, his permanent secretary took forward the executives responsibilities.

“The protocol is a consequence of Brexit. The DUP championed Brexit & must own the consequences. Business and society need certainty, not stunts.”

Analysis: This is more of a political move than a practical one

By David Blevins, senior Ireland correspondent

The battle over the Northern Ireland protocol is escalating but right now, this is more about political pressure than practicalities.

The checks required on agri-food products entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain have not been halted, well not yet anyway.

They have been conducted in temporary facilities at ports since the end of the transition period on New Year’s Eve.

But the DUP, which holds the agriculture portfolio, has been under pressure from other Unionist parties for enabling those checks.

Arlene Foster’s party has now upped the ante by halting the construction of permanent posts and the hiring of inspectors.

The DUP wants Boris Johnson to invoke Article 16 of the withdrawal agreement, to effectively overwrite the Northern Ireland protocol.

The move comes four weeks after the EU threatened to invoke Article 16 “in error” over the distribution of vaccines.

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