DUP suddenly stops work on building permanent Irish Sea border posts – but doesn’t stop checks at existing border posts

A DUP minister tonight precipitated an Executive crisis by halting work on the construction of long-term Irish Sea border infrastructure.

By Sam McBride and David Young
Friday, 26th February 2021, 7:53 pm
Work on long-term border posts has been halted – but staff will continue to do checks and are not being withdrawn
Work on long-term border posts has been halted – but staff will continue to do checks and are not being withdrawn

At tea time, agriculture minister Gordon Lyons announced that he was halting work on the construction of facilities costing around £40 million and ordering an end to charges levied at ports on traders bringing goods from GB into Northern Ireland.

Mr Lyons told the Press Association that his actions were “reasonable and proportionate” in the circumstances.

However, Mr Lyons has not stopped his officials from operating most border checks and they will continue – as the have done since January 1 – in temporary facilities constructed by civil servants working under the control of his DUP predecessor, Edwin Poots, last year.

Nationalist ministers immediately denounced Mr Lyons’ actions, with SDLP infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon, calling for an emergency Executive meeting and arguing that the decision was “controversial, cross-cutting and cannot be put into effect without Executive agreement”.

Sinn Féin deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill dismissed Mr Lyons’ move as a “stunt” and highlighted that last year when Mr Poots briefly flirted with stopping work on the border, he ultimately backed down and allowed his officials to resume that work.

The decision came as unionist leaders released the text of a joint letter sent to Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday in which they pledged “unified and unalterable” opposition to the Irish Sea border – making it difficult for any of them to recant and accept a scaled-down version of the border.

Mr Lyons, who has also stopped further recruitment of inspection staff for the port facilities, told the Press Association: “I’ve just let executive colleagues know that today I instructed my department to halt work on a range of issues relating to work at the ports.

“This is in and around a number of areas, first of all further infrastructure, any further infrastructure builds; the additional recruitment of staff; and also the charging at the ports.”

The decisions come amid the ongoing controversy over disruption caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol, which governs Irish Sea trade post-Brexit.

Mr Lyons said his move was in response to the “practical difficulties” caused by the Protocol. He cited uncertainty over the movement of goods when grace periods currently limiting protocol bureaucracy end at the start of April.

He said: “We don’t know what the movement of retail goods from Great Britain into Northern Ireland is going to look like, we don’t have the support in place through the digital assistance scheme yet either, and all of the SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) issues around the end of the grace period are just so uncertain and it’s real nightmare for us and it’s going to be causing us an awful lot of problems.”

The minister said there was need for the UK and EU to find “permanent solutions” to the issues caused by the protocol: “It’s a real concern to us heading towards the end of the grace period, so we need that certainty from the EU and the UK.”

He said supply chains into Northern Ireland were also unlikely to be able to hold up when the regulatory red tape increases in April “so there’s a lot of practical difficulties with all of this and that’s causing us a huge amount of uncertainty.”

The TUV welcomed the move “in so far as it goes”, adding: “We continue to believe that having gone this far the Minister needs to follow through on the logic of what he has announced this evening and pull all his department’s staff who are conducting checks. No Unionist should play any part in partitioning the United Kingdom.”

With Arlene Foster increasingly moving in line with the tactics proposed by TUV leader Jim Allister, former SDLP adviser Brendan Mulgrew wryly observed: “Jim Allister is a busy man, leading two parties at the minute.”

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