N.Ireland minister orders halt to agri-food Brexit checks

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Edwin Poots arrives at the DUP ruling executive meeting to ratify Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader designate Sir Jeffrey Donaldson as party leader, in Belfast, Northern Ireland June 30, 2021. REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff/File Photo

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  • DUP minister cites legal advice that checks must cease
  • Ireland warns move would breach international law
  • UK says it warned EU of risk of such unilateral moves
  • Rules should be followed, regardless of checks -trade body

BELFAST, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Northern Ireland's Agriculture Minister on Wednesday ordered a halt from midnight to all post-Brexit checks on agri-food goods coming into the region from the rest of the United Kingdom, a move Dublin and some partners in government said was unlawful.

Edwin Poots, a member of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which opposes the Northern Ireland protocol mandating such checks, cited legal advice that the measures should not have been introduced without approval from the regional government.

The protocol was designed to avoid politically contentious border checks between Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland, but has effectively created a border in the Irish Sea, angering pro-British unionists and prompting London to seek to rewrite the deal it signed up to before it left the EU in 2020.

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"The advice concluded that I can direct the (Sanitary and phytosanitary) checks to cease in the absence of executive approval. I have now issued a formal instruction to halt all checks that were not in place on Dec. 31 2020 from midnight tonight," Poots told a news conference. Poots' decision does not affect non agriculture-related checks mandated by the protocol.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney warned Poots that he will effectively breach international law if he follows through and that it was "really unhelpful" to months long efforts by London and Brussels to try to get rid of many of the checks.

The United Kingdom's minister for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis told ITV that the decision was a matter for the Northern Ireland government but that such unilateral action "was exactly the sort of thing" London had been warning the EU may happen to ensure goods move across the Irish Sea seamlessly.

Poots said he would seek a way forward "in the near future" within the devolved government that his party shares with rival parties, a majority of whom support the protocol.

Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill of Sinn Fein, which backs the protocol, described Poots' move as a "stunt" and "an attempt by the DUP to unlawfully interfere with domestic, and international law."

Northern Ireland is due to hold elections in May and opinion polls suggest Irish nationalists Sinn Fein will pass the DUP to become the largest party for the first time. The DUP have lost support to other unionist groups over the protocol.

Trade body Manufacturing NI said on Twitter that members should continue to follow the current rules regardless of whether they are checked or not.

The checks imposed so far have negatively affected some businesses and led to a surge in trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland - problems amplified by London and unionist politicians.

However a survey by Manufacturing NI last month showed that for the first time more businesses had reported no impact from the protocol than those experiencing disruption. One in four firms also reported an increase in EU sales. read more

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Reporting by Ian Graham in Belfast, writing and additional reporting by Padraic Halpin in Dublin, editing by Mark Heinrich and Grant McCool

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