A DUP minister has formally asked the Stormont Executive for permission to continue carrying out Brexit port checks, in a move that could see him ultimately attempt to halt them.
Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots says recent court rulings related to the functioning of the devolved institutions at Stormont mean he must gain the approval of the wider Executive for the checks required under the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Officials in his department are currently carrying out the contentious checks and inspections on goods arriving from Great Britain.
The PA news agency understands that Mr Poots has tabled a paper to fellow ministers requesting that the issue is put on the agenda of Thursday’s Executive meeting for consideration.
He has asked the Executive for retrospective approval for carrying out checks from the date the protocol came into effect in January 2021 and ongoing permission to continue doing them.
If the matter was brought to a vote at the Executive, the DUP could use its veto to block the continuation of the checks.
However, the matter is unlikely to ever make the agenda, as Sinn Fein has made clear it will use its veto to stop it.
If Sinn Fein does prevent the issue reaching the Executive, Mr Poots has already signalled an intent to order a halt to the checks, contending that he would not have the legal authority to continue them.
It is understood that in the paper Mr Poots makes clear that if Executive approval is not forthcoming by January 27, he will have to reconsider whether he has the legal authority to continue the checks.
Sinn Fein has challenged Mr Poots’ legal interpretation of the issue.
Under Stormont rules, issues deemed “significant and controversial” should be dealt with by the powersharing executive as a whole.
Issues that cut across the responsibilities of multiple departments should also be brought to the Executive under the terms of the ministerial code.
However, Sinn Fein insists the Executive has already taken a decision on the issue in 2020, when it says ministers agreed that Mr Poots would take on the legal responsibility to implement the checks.
Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill has said any unilateral move by Mr Poots to halt the checks would be unlawful and civil servants in his department would not be able to comply with such an order.
The stand-off has the potential to put Department of Agriculture civil servants in a very awkward position, with different Stormont ministers offering contrasting views on whether officials are able to follow any direction from Mr Poots to halt checks.
If checks were to stop, it would put the UK Government at odds with its international obligations under the terms of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
In such circumstances, the Government could use its authority to direct that the checks resume.
However, that could place it in an uncomfortable position politically, given London is currently involved in intensive negotiations with Brussels in a bid to significantly reduce the number of checks required under the controversial protocol.