Weeks after halting Irish Sea border staff recruitment, DUP minister quietly U-turns – and won’t explain why

Just weeks after the DUP said it was blocking recruitment of Irish Sea border inspectors, DUP minister Edwin Poots’s department has advertised for port inspectors.

Thursday, 25th March 2021, 7:01 am
Updated Thursday, 25th March 2021, 8:57 am

A month ago the then DUP agriculture minister Gordon Lyons – who was standing in for Mr Poots while he recovered from cancer surgery – dramatically announced that he was halting work on Irish Sea border infrastructure and stopping the recruitment of staff to carry out checks.

The announcement caused alarm in London and Brussels as it appeared to signal a more hardline DUP approach to the issue.

However, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) which Mr Poots has returned to lead now appears to have quietly U-turned.

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The staff will be based at a number of locations, including Larne Port

On Monday, the department advertised for more staff, describing them as “agriculture inspector group 1”.

An advertisement for the posts – which pay a salary of between £25,229 and £26,051 – states that they are based at the Portal Operations Branch, with locations listed as Larne Port, Belfast Port, Warrenpoint Port and Northern Ireland’s airports. Interviews will be conducted in mid-May.

On multiple occasions yesterday the News Letter asked Mr Poots’ department whether this signalled a change of policy. There was no response.

Meanwhile, it has been revealed that only 15% of DAERA border staff were withdrawn from Larne and Belfast over a security threat which led to Mr Poots to state very publicly that he was withdrawing staff, even though it later transpired that the police had not recommended such action and later said there was no credible threat.

The staff will be based at a number of locations, including Larne Port

Unusually, Mr Poots made his announcement not in a departmental statement but in a late-night tweet just hours before he left office for surgery.

In his tweet the DUP minister said he had “decided to withdraw staff from Belfast and Larne ports tonight” – and did not specify that only a small number of staff were being pulled out.

At the time, the graffiti said that “all border post staff are targets”. At the weekend, the News Letter revealed claims that a UK Border Force worker had been put out of their home around that time, something the PSNI would not confirm or deny.

However, information unearthed by TUV leader Jim Allister shows that Mr Poots’s department employs 127 staff at Belfast, Larne and Warrenpoint ports to carry out inspections, documentary checks and related duties, yet just 20 staff were pulled out before returning to work nine days later.

Graffiti had described all staff conducting Irish Sea border checks as ‘targets’ – but only 15% of them were withdrawn by Edwin Poots

Mr Allister said he was “bewildered” at what was going on and it seemed that by advertising for more port staff it seemed that the DUP-run department’s “resolve has wilted remarkably quickly”.

He said: “As Peter Robinson has rightly said you cannot say you are in the business of ditching the protocol while simultaneously implementing it. There is a simple choice for unionists – suck it up or resist it. You cannot have it both ways.

“As I have repeatedly said, the agriculture minister should pull all staff from the border which is driving a wedge between us and Great Britain. This should be done not because of threats but as an act of political will.

“Unionism needs to take the resolute political action necessary to let the government and the EU know that we will not be willing participants in a process which is fatal to the Union.”

Ulster Unionist MLA Rosemary Barton said: “The inconsistency from the agriculture minister makes it very difficult to understand what policy he is following.”

Speaking when he halted recruitment a month ago, the then DUP minister Mr Lyons said: “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.”

It is not the first time that the DUP has talked tough about blocking the Irish Sea border before quietly recanting. Last year Mr Poots briefly halted work on the construction of border control posts but quickly stepped back from that position following legal advice.

Mr Poots then distanced himself from the work and his officials took on responsibility for what was happening, with Mr Poots arguing that he could not stop it.

However, now the DUP is supporting a legal action which argues that the Irish Sea border is an illegal breach of the 1800 Act of Union.

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