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Halt to post-Brexit NI Protocol checks ‘matter for Executive’ as Brandon Lewis confirms UK won’t intervene

Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State Brandon Lewis has confirmed the UK Government will not intervene in the decision by Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots to halt Brexit checks in the Irish Sea.

Mr Lewis told ITV’s Robert Peston it was a “matter for the Northern Ireland Executive” and said it was “within their legal remit”

It comes as Mr Poots said he was taking the decision to cease such checks from midnight on Wednesday following legal advice he had received.

Last week the UK’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss also said the UK wouldn’t step in if Mr Poots moved to halt checks and said it was a “matter for the Executive”.

"Obviously we'll be looking at the out workings of that, exactly what the legal advice is they have taken,” added Mr Lewis.

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"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.

"It's exactly the sort of thing we have been warning about, in terms of the stability of the Executive and the decisions the Executive ministers will take in order to ensure that products can move from Great Britain to Northern Ireland in a way that they always have done."

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney told the Seanad the decision was a "breach of international law” and said the move would be “playing politics with legal obligations”.

In his announcement, Mr Poots said: "I have taken legal advice in relation to my position from senior counsel. Earlier today I received that legal advice. 

"It stated that at present there is presently no Executive approval for SPS checks. The implementation of SPS checks requires Executive approval.

"A decision to initiate or continue such checks could not be validly taken in the absence of Executive approval.

"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 December 31 2020 from midnight tonight.

"I will prepare a paper for Executive consideration in the near future to seek agreement on a way forward."

Mr Poots initially sought legal advice claiming recent court rulings have clarified that such authority is required.

It is yet unclear whether the senior civil servant in his department, Anthony Harbinson, will comply with the order.

DUP rivals at Stormont insist the civil service has a duty to comply with Stormont's legal obligations to carry out the checks under the terms of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

Mr Poots’ party colleague Sammy Wilson claimed the removal of checks would “save money for hard pressed families”.

The East Antrim MP added: “Its now time our Government stood up and backed the unionist people of Northern Ireland who have rejected the Protocol.”

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill claimed the move was an attempt to “unlawful interfere with domestic, and international law”.

"DUP fixated on their own priorities, which are clearly at odds with where the wider community is at. Health, jobs, housing, cost of living crisis is where the rest of us are focused,” she tweeted.

Mr O'Dowd said the Northern Ireland Protocol is the law and it must be adhered to and said Mr Poots needs to “catch himself on”.

"Here we have a minister who is perfectly aware of the Executive's position in relation to adherence to the law. The protocol is the law.

"The DUP signed off at the Executive that they would adhere to the regulations within the protocol.

"I have a number of questions which require to be answered by Mr Poots. Where did he get this legal advice?

"Did he go to the Attorney General? Did he use Government legal advisers?

"The facts remain the same. The Executive has a position that they will adhere to the protocol, to the European Withdrawal Agreement, and the principle remains for all Executive ministers, you have to adhere to the law."

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long claimed people are “tired of this grandstanding and instability”.

"Edwin received clear legal advice in March 2020 when he first tried this stunt. Executive was clear, as was @DefraGovUK, that @daera_ni is obliged by law to undertake these checks,” she posted on social media.

“Step up and do the job or step aside.”

SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole said: “Nothing to do with the people or businesses of NI and everything to do with the DUP and their horrible Brexit mess they've got themselves into.

“Chaos, ignoring the law, putting party interest before public interest. And it won't work.”

In response, TUV leader Jim Allister welcomed the move but questioned how long it took Mr Poots to act.

“The fundamental question though remains, why did it take a year to do this - a year which included excuses and justifications for the very checks Minister Poots now abandons,” said Mr Allister.

“There is nothing like an election to focus minds.

“A major part of TUV’s function will be to ensure there is no backsliding on this issue, given that implementing for a full year that which has now been stopped does not generate confidence."

Reaction to Mr Poots’ decision also swiftly emerged from the Republic of Ireland, as Mr Coveney said the decision to halt the checks would be a "breach of international law".

Speaking in the upper house of the Irish parliament, Mr Coveney said: "If a political decision is taken by a minister in Northern Ireland to stop all checks in ports on goods coming across the Irish Sea, coming into Northern Ireland, that is effectively a breach of international law.

"And I would remind everybody that the protocol is part of an international agreement.

"It was agreed and ratified by the UK and the EU. And its implementation is not only part of an international treaty, but it is part of international law.

"And so to deliberately frustrate obligations under that treaty I think would be a very serious matter indeed.

"It's essentially playing politics with legal obligations. And I certainly hope that it doesn't happen, as has been threatened."

Mr Poots originally sought the legal advice after a failed bid to secure the wider approval of the Stormont Executive to continue checks on agri-food produce arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

The minister says that in the absence of Executive approval he no longer has legal cover to continue the documentary checks and physical inspections.

His move to seek a ministerial vote at the Executive last week was branded a stunt by other parties.

They insist the Executive has already agreed that Mr Poots’ department has responsibility for carrying out the checks and he does not have the authority to halt processes that are required under the terms of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, an international treaty.

The dispute centres on whether Mr Poots requires the authority of the wider Stormont Executive to conduct the checks required under the agreement’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

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