Committee scrutiny of officials on port checks postponed pending legal challenge

Committee scrutiny of officials on port checks postponed pending legal challenge
A judicial review of Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots’s instruction to halt the Brexit checks at Northern Ireland ports will be heard next month.

A plan for MLAs to question senior officials on a controversial order to halt Brexit port checks has been put on hold pending a legal challenge.

The Assembly’s agriculture committee last week sought urgent briefings from two senior Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) officials following the unilateral instruction from DUP minister Edwin Poots to stop agri-food checks on goods arriving from Great Britain.

MLAs wanted to quiz departmental permanent secretary Anthony Harbinson and chief veterinary officer Dr Robert Huey about the move.

However, a day after the committee requested the briefing, the Agriculture Minister’s order was suspended by a judge in Belfast High Court pending a full legal hearing into the issue.

Northern Ireland’s chief veterinary officer, Dr Robert Huey, at a checking facility at Belfast Port (Liam McBurney/PA)
Northern Ireland’s chief veterinary officer, Dr Robert Huey, at a checking facility at Belfast Port (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Justice Colton said he was making the temporary direction until a judicial review against the DUP minister’s decision can be heard next month.

Committee chair Declan McAleer said the legal case would need to be concluded before MLAs could question the officials.

“Following this development the (committee) clerk advised me that any briefing on this matter would be sub judice,” said the Sinn Fein MLA.

“I took the view that the officials are not likely to engage as fulsomely as possible at this particular time and I suggest we don’t call the senior officials at this particular time and perhaps wait to the outcome of the legal proceedings.

“However, I suggest that we seek an urgent response from the department in writing in respect of the potential implications of the instruction to be followed through, in respect of trade, supply chain staff, animal and plant health and what mitigations the department would intend to implement.”

Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots announcing his instruction for checks to stop (Niall Carson/PA)
Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots announcing his instruction for checks to stop (Niall Carson/PA)

No other committee members raised an objection to Mr McAleer’s suggested course of action.

The move by Mr Poots last Wednesday was part of an escalation of the DUP’s campaign against the contentious Irish Sea trade checks required under the terms of Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

It was followed 24 hours later by the resignation of DUP First Minister Paul Givan – a step that automatically ousted Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill from office and removed the Executive’s ability to take collective decisions.

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