DUP minister Edwin Poots has been criticised for thanking a leading Brexit campaigner for his efforts following the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union — even though his party voted against the deal.
His praise for Arron Banks has been questioned because officials from the department led by Mr Poots are involved in building Irish Sea border infrastructure bitterly opposed by unionists.
The UUP branded Mr Poots’ remarks as “risible”.
It came as Secretary of State Brandon Lewis was criticised after insisting on Twitter that there is no border in the Irish Sea.
As the Brexit transition period with the European Union came to an end on Thursday night, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it offered the chance to “transform” the UK.
His Brexit trade deal with the EU was passed by 521 votes to 73 in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
Despite being the only major local party to campaign for Brexit, none of the DUP’s eight MPs voted to support the European Union (Future Relationship) Bill.
The party’s main Brexit cheerleader Sammy Wilson described the DUP as “disappointed Brexiteers” in the Commons prior to the vote.
He told MPs his party would not back the deal because the UK would not leave the EU as a whole.
Officials from Mr Poots’ Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs have been involved in building border control infrastructure at local ports, something the minister has said he opposes.
However, on Friday the Lagan Valley MLA sent a tweet to Mr Banks, the co-founder of the Leave EU campaign, thanking him “for all you done” in making Brexit happen.
Mr Banks helped Nigel Farage’s campaign to leave the EU and was one of the largest donors to the UK Independence Party. He originally tweeted: “A long fight but we did it.
“Brexiteers love their Queen and country — we believe in Britain!”
When the Belfast Telegraph contacted Mr Poots to explain his tweet to Mr Banks, he said it was “self-explanatory”.
“My only desire was that Northern Ireland left [the European Union] the same as Great Britain and not separately, as Sammy Wilson said in his statement to the House,” added the Agriculture Minister.
UUP leader Steve Aiken criticised the message. Referring to officials for the department led by Mr Poots being currently involved in building border posts at local ports, he said: “That Edwin Poots believes there is anything to celebrate about Northern Ireland being hived off as a ‘place apart’ so that Conservative and other reactionary grandees can relish a diminishing of the United Kingdom is risible.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood replied directly to Mr Poots’ response to Mr Banks. The Foyle MP simply posted: “Unrequited love.”
Critics of the DUP have been urging the party to hold its hands up and be honest over the role it played in creating a border in the Irish Sea, as the divorce settlement imposes customs checks between here and Britain.
Ulster Unionist peer Lord Empey argued that the Northern Ireland Protocol only came about after the DUP initially indicated acceptance of it.
The protocol, part of the Withdrawal Agreement, was designed to avoid the need for border checks on the island of Ireland after Brexit.
Meanwhile, the Secretary of State was criticised after tweeting: “There is no ‘Irish Sea Border’.”
Independent Lagan Valley MLA Trevor Lunn responded: “I’m avoiding calling his comments b******* because I’m naturally polite.”