Edwin Poots defends attempt to dilute Northern Ireland protocol bill

Former DUP leader said it was ‘entirely responsible’ to support farmers who could lose out under post-Brexit subsidy rules

The former leader of the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) has defended an attempt to water down the Northern Ireland protocol bill to make it more beneficial for farmers.

Edwin Poots, who led the party for a month in 2021, wrote to the UK government in July last year saying the proposed bill would mean farmers in Northern Ireland would be subject to the same subsidy rules as the rest of the UK.

The Financial Times reports that Poots wrote to the then UK environment secretary George Eustice saying it was “unacceptable” that Northern Irish farmers would have to accept the same levels of agricultural subsidy as the rest of the UK. At the time Poots was serving as agriculture minister.

“The Northern Ireland protocol bill is proposing to disapply the approach to subsidy control that we currently have (which works) and extending the (UK’s Subsidy Control Act) (which doesn’t work) to Northern Ireland. This is unacceptable and we need a solution,” he said.

Since Brexit, EU state aid rules do not apply to Britain and a new Subsidy Control Act has been created that will come in to force in January. Poots argued that the new policy would be less generous to Northern Ireland’s farmers than existing arrangements with the protocol in place. He said he “can’t recall” whether he had a response to his letter.

Northern Ireland’s executive and assembly has been blocked from forming by the DUP in protest over the protocol. The party’s leadership has said it will not consider a return to Stormont unless the economic barriers on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, which are created by the protocol, are removed.

However Poots said on Friday that while the protocol was “wholly unacceptable”, it was “entirely reasonable” to try to support farmers. He said he “reasonably suggested one change which would maximise the UK’s ability to use state aid under World Trade Organization rules”.

He added: “If the Northern Ireland protocol bill were to be progressed as currently drafted, that would remove the EU state aid framework and bring Northern Ireland agriculture within scope of the UK domestic subsidy control regime.

“That imposes a different set of requirements and the agricultural policy framework would need to be assessed in light of this different regime.”

A UK government spokesperson said: “The bill will fix the unacceptable tax-and-spend discrepancies between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country – ensuring businesses can benefit from the same support and subsidies across the whole of the UK.”

The DUP’s leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, has said that the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday agreement will pass with no government in Northern Ireland, unless the protocol is dropped.

He told the Foreign Press Association that the post-Brexit trading agreement needed to be replaced by arrangements supported by unionists.


Harry Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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