Stormont minister to face Executive scrutiny over port checks construction halt

David Young, PA
·3 min read

A controversial decision to halt work on permanent inspection posts for Brexit port checks in Northern Ireland will be debated by Stormont ministers later.

The move by DUP Agriculture Minister Gordon Lyons on Friday is likely to prompt robust exchanges at a meeting of the devolved executive on Monday morning.

Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance Party – the three pro-remain executive parties – have already heavily criticised Mr Lyons’s decision, insisting he does not have the authority to act unilaterally on issues considered controversial.

Stormont legal advisers have been asked to provide an opinion on the DUP’s latest bid to undermine the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol, which governs Irish Sea trade between Great Britain and the region post-Brexit.

Mr Lyons may also face scrutiny on the floor of the Stormont Assembly on Monday by way of an urgent oral question.

Coronavirus – Mon May 11, 2020
Agriculture Minister Gordon Lyons (Presseye/PA)

As well as ordering officials to halt construction of permanent inspection facilities for regulatory checks on agri-food goods arriving from GB, Mr Lyons also stopped further recruitment of inspection staff and said charges would not be levied at the ports on traders bringing goods into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

Irish Sea trade checks required under the terms of the protocol are currently taking place at existing repurposed port buildings and other temporary facilities.

Those temporary entry points will continue to operate. Mr Lyons’s decision relates to ongoing work on new purpose-built inspection facilities at ports like Belfast and Larne.

Permanent facilities are due to be built at Belfast, Larne, Warrenpoint and Foyle ports. Physical construction has not commenced at any of the sites, with work currently still in the design and preparatory phases.

The DUP and other unionist parties in Northern Ireland are pushing for the protocol to be ditched, claiming it has driven an economic wedge between the region and Great Britain, undermining the Union as a consequence.

Mr Lyons said his move was in response to the “practical difficulties” caused by the protocol.

He cited uncertainty over the movement of goods when grace periods currently limiting protocol bureaucracy end at the start of April.

Some freight companies see fall in revenue
A cargo crate being moved in Belfast Port. Lawyers have been asked to provide an opinion on the DUP’s latest bid to undermine the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol, which governs Irish Sea trade between Great Britain and the region post-Brexit (Niall Carson/PA)

Mr Lyons’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has been fulfilling the UK Government’s legal duty to construct the facilities under the terms of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

Last year the minister’s predecessor and DUP colleague Edwin Poots also explored the potential of ordering a stop to construction but stepped back from that position following legal advice.

Mr Poots instead distanced himself from the work and his senior officials took on responsibility for fulfilling the protocol obligations.

Mr Lyons cited UK domestic legislation – in the form of the Internal Market Act – in arguing he has “legal duty” to stop the work.

He said that law compelled him to always act with special regard to Northern Ireland’s place within the UK’s internal market.

Asked about his obligation to fulfil the UK’s responsibilities under the Brexit international treaty, Mr Lyons insisted he was acting in a “reasonable and proportionate” manner in response to the uncertainty around the protocol.

On Friday night, a Government spokesman said: “This is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive.”