Boris Johnson has said it is “crazy” that British goods face Irish Sea border controls as Northern Ireland’s First Minister appeared set to resign after Brexit checks continued a day after the DUP ordered them to be halted.
The Prime Minister said “common-sensical…practical steps” could be taken to ensure only goods at risk of crossing into EU member Ireland were checked.
“Now we can do that, but without having a full panoply of checks on the GB/NI coast and at the airport, and that’s the way forward. I think practical common sense is what’s needed,” he said.
Mr Johnson was asked if he was backsliding on treaty commitments in the Northern Ireland Protocol. He said, “Actually, if you look at the protocol, which I’m sure you have studied in detail, there’s plenty about uninterrupted east-west trade.”
Firs Minister Paul Givan, of the DUP, is expected to step down this afternoon, a day after his Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots said Northern Ireland Protocol checks on British agri-food exports to the province must stop.
If Mr Givan does resign, it will force Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill to quit as Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly, ahead of elections on May 5.
The Belfast Telegraph reported that all other Stomont ministers would stay in their post ahead of the planned elections, which it is feared will become a de facto referendum on the protocol.
The DUP has previously threatened to collapse the Assembly and trigger early elections over their opposition for the protocol, which prevents a hard border with EU member Ireland.
Northern Ireland power-sharing pact at risk
Mr Poots’ order and the expected resignation follows polling that showed Sinn Fein has opened up an 8 per cent lead over the DUP before the elections.
The roles of first and deputy first minister are a joint office shared by the two biggest parties in Stormont, which is the the Unionist DUP and the nationalist Sinn Fein.
The power-sharing arrangement means neither leader can stay in power if the other resigns.
Although other ministers will stay in their posts, the executive will be unable to make any new policy decisions. Legislation in Westminster is due next week to allow the Assembly to continue without early elections.
Mr Givan was appointed first minister in June 2021, eight months ago, after the DUP, which is narrowly the largest party in Stormont, had three different leaders, including Mr Poots, in a matter of weeks.
Mr Poots said he will challenge a DUP decision not to select him to stand in the elections for the assembly in South Down before issuing his order to cease checks on Wednesday.
Reports from ports in Northern Ireland on Thursday suggested that checks on lorries entering the province are still being carried out despite the DUP’s orders.
The European Union ordered the UK to override Stormont after the DUP announced the halt to Irish Sea border checks, raising the prospect of legal action if the Government refuses to intervene.
‘Uncertainty for businesses in Northern Ireland’
In a statement on Thursday morning, the European Commission said the gambit was “unhelpful” as it attempts to negotiate a number of fixes to end the trade chaos caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“The European Commission has been working tirelessly with the UK government to address practical challenges related to the implementation of the Protocol,” the EU’s Brussels-based executive said.
“The decision by the Northern Irish Minister for Agriculture is therefore unhelpful. It creates further uncertainty and unpredictability for businesses and citizens in Northern Ireland.”
Despite the Government insisting the customs controls of agri-food products are a matter for the Northern Irish executive, Brussels has called for Downing Street to intervene and demonstrate “respect of the international obligations it has entered into”.
“The European Commission will closely monitor developments in Northern Ireland pursuant to this announcement,” it added.
Brussels said on Thursday its “preliminary information is that the checks are taking place”.
It came after videos posted on social media showed officials in hi-vis jackets were seen opening up and examining lorries.
Downing Street also said checks are continuing to be carried out, while the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said the Government was continuing to look at the legal situation.
“As we speak checks are continuing to take place at ports in Northern Ireland, as they have done before,” the spokesman said.
“We are monitoring the situation closely and keeping the legal position under review.”
Protocol ‘not working and must be fixed’
Britain will deny colluding with the DUP over its order to halt Irish sea border checks but will tell Brussels today it won’t overrule the controversial decision on the Northern Ireland Protocol
Liz Truss will tell the European Commission’s Maros Sefcovic that it is a matter for the Northern Ireland executive alone, The Telegraph understands.
The Foreign Secretary, who is in Covid isolation, will attempt to convince Mr Sefcovic that the controversy proves the Protocol is not working and must be fixed. The call was arranged to evaluate progress in ongoing talks to cut the number of checks needed under the Brexit treaty.
Dublin has raised the prospect of legal action if the trade checks eventually stopped in the coming days.
Simon Hoare MP, the Tory chair of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, said the UK needed to overrule the DUP rather than be complicit in a breach of international law.
In relation to NI Protocol checks: I’m a Conservative. I believe in the Rule of Law and adhering to obligations we voluntarily entered. There’s no ifs and buts on this. The reputation of the UK on these matters is important. Anyone who cares about the UK should feel the same
— Simon Hoare MP (@Simon4NDorset) February 3, 2022
He said, “I’m a Conservative. I believe in the Rule of Law and adhering to obligations we voluntarily entered. There’s no ifs and buts on this. The reputation of the UK on these matters is important. Anyone who cares about the UK should feel the same.”
Mr Poots’ order only concerns SPS checks on agrifood, which are to ensure they meet EU animal and plant health standards. 85 percent of goods sent to Northern Ireland are not subject to checks. Of the remaining 15 percent, 12 per cent are subject to lorry checks.
“What business needs is stability, certainty, simplicity and affordability. That must be the focus for our politicians so we can keep choice and affordability for NI households,” said Director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, Aodhán Connolly.
Gavin Barwell, Theresa May’s former chief of staff when she was prime minister, said: “This is a remarkable line to take – whether the UK abides by its international legal commitments is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive. I suspect the Scottish government will be quoting that back to the UK government at some point.”
The resignation is likely to prevent the Assembly agreeing a three-year budget . An official state apology to victims of historic abuse in institutions by Mr Givan and Ms O’Neill , which was planned for March, could also be at risk.