Mr Poots’ decision – which was communicated to his own officials and to DEFRA in London last Wednesday –led to a rancourous Executive debate on Thursday evening which saw argument over whether the DUP agriculture and environment minister had the legal authority to take the decision.
In May, the Executive agreed to give Mr Poots authority to take the lead on work necessary to prepare for the looming post-Brexit checks at ports at airports, and that he had accepted the task.
Until last week, the work appears to have been quietly proceeding – despite the DUP’s trenchant opposition to the checks.
However, ten days ago Sky News broadcast an interview with DUP leader Arlene Foster in which she explicitly said that she will implement the Brexit deal which creates the new Irish Sea trade border and suggested that more money from London and assistance for various businesses could help offset the damage to the Union.
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The backlash to those comments unnerved some senior DUP figures and the News Letter understands that Mr Poots was part of an internal high-level DUP meeting at the start of this week in which it was made clear to him by senior colleagues that he should stop work on the border infrastructure.
It is understood that present at the meeting was Arlene Foster – who in her Sky interview had said she accepted Boris Johnson’s border-creating deal was “reality” and she would implement it – although it is not clear what position she adopted at the meeting.
Two sources have told this newspaper that during Thursday evening’s Executive meeting Mr Poots’ decision was raised by senior civil servant Andrew McCormick, who is Stormont’s most senior official working on Brexit preparations.
Dr McCormick is said to have forthrightly made clear that legal advice said that officials had to continue work on border infrastructure, despite the wishes of Mr Poots.
Dr McCormick, who is Stormont’s most experienced senior civil servant, is precluded from speaking to the media and declined to comment when contacted by the News Letter.
During the Executive meeting, Sinn Féin Finance Minister Conor Murphy intervened and proposed that they should vote on a proposal to rescind Mr Poots’ instruction, but the DUP deployed its veto to prevent that from passing.
It is understood that Mr Poots cited the RHI scandal, saying that he was not prepared to waste public money on border infrastructure which might not be needed.
The Executive then adjourned to take more legal advice from the Attorney General and was meant to reconvene on Friday at 3pm. That did not happen but ministers then reconvened for an inconclusive meeting on Friday evening before breaking up to return to the issue on Monday.
Civil servants are said to have impressed upon ministers the need for extreme urgency because Friday was said to be the final day on which authorisation for the work could be given and it could be in place for the end of the year when the new Irish Sea border will become active.
Mr Poots’ department would only say: “This matter is currently being considered by the Executive and it is inappropriate to comment further.”
The News Letter attempted to contact Mr Poots directly and then asked the DUP questions about the issue on Friday and again on Monday but there was no response.
However, after the publication of this article Mr Poots tweeted to say that the claim he had been urged by DUP colleagues to stop work on the border posts was “erroneous and untrue”.
When asked about Mr Poots’ decision, the Government said in a statement: “We have always been clear that, following the Northern Ireland Protocol, there would be a limited expansion of facilities at some existing entry points, where certain controls for animal and plant health already take place.
“We have submitted to the EU applications for these entry points on time and there will be no new customs infrastructure in Northern Ireland.
“We are continuing to work closely with the Executive on proposals to minimise requirements on the movement of food and agricultural products, in line with the approach we set out in our May Command Paper.”
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