Boris Johnson has been ambushed by the Democratic Unionist party over its order to local border officials to halt all Brexit checks on food and farm products in Northern Ireland ports.
The unilateral move by the Stormont agriculture minister, Edwin Poots, has set the UK on a new collision course with Brussels.
Johnson’s spokesperson said ministers in Westminster had not known about the DUP’s plan, but confirmed that the checks were continuing for now.
He added that the government was looking into the legalities of who might be responsible if they did stop, given the checks are a devolved competence but are mandated by an international treaty personally negotiated and signed by Johnson in January 2020.
“As we speak, checks are continuing to take place at ports in Northern Ireland, as they have done before,” he said. “We are monitoring the situation closely, and keeping the legal position under review.
“The operation of those checks is a matter for the Northern Ireland executive, as SPS [sanitary and phytosanitary] checks are a devolved competence. We want the executive to resolve this issue in the first instance, and we are in contact with them.”
He was speaking as the Stormont executive was plunged into an existential crisis with the first minister, the DUP’s Paul Givan, resigning in protest against the Brexit checks.
The order by Poots to halt all Brexit checks on food and farm products entering Northern Ireland has been described by Ireland’s European commissioner as “an absolute breach of international law”.
The UK environment secretary, George Eustice, told the House of Commons that he had spoken to Poots, who told him “he had taken his own legal advice before issuing the advice to officials” but that no laws were presently being broken as the checks were continuing as before at points of entry.
After a video conference call with the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, the EU’s Brexit commissioner, Maroš Šefčovič, said he understood the checks on goods were continuing.
He said: “We see the recent instruction by [Poots] as being very unhelpful. It creates uncertainty and unpredictability for the people and businesses in Northern Ireland. These checks are necessary for Northern Ireland to benefit from access to the EU’s single market for goods.
“According to our information, officials in Northern Ireland continue to carry out checks on goods coming to Northern Ireland. It is essential that this remains the case. The European Commission will closely monitor the developments on the ground.
“The protocol, the cornerstone of the withdrawal agreement, is an international agreement. It is therefore the UK government’s responsibility to uphold its legal obligations stemming from the protocol – the only solution we have found with the UK government to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) agreement, taking into account the type of Brexit the UK government chose.”
The DUP MP Sammy Wilson confirmed to BBC Good Morning Ulster that the advice was given by the former Northern Ireland attorney general John Larkin. He predicted the move would accelerate a solution after almost a year of negotiations between the UK and Brussels.
“If it requires a bit of a kick for a bit of reality to come into these talks, then what has happened today is a bit of kick. This will also test whether the checks are really necessary because 95% of the goods are not going near the Irish republic.”
Simon Hoare, a Conservative MP and chair of the Northern Ireland select committee, said the move had put the reputation of the UK at stake. He tweeted: “There’s no ifs and buts on this. The reputation of the UK on these matters is important. Anyone who cares about the UK should feel the same.”
Poots confirmed on Thursday that checks were continuing to take place at Northern Ireland’s ports while “financial” issues were being considered. He predicted they would stop “in days”.
Poots’s move comes as the DUP faces a huge battle to retain its position as the largest party in Northern Ireland with Sinn Féin’s popularity increasing and the Ulster Unionist party snapping at its heels.
Poots, who was leader of the DUP last May, is also facing local turmoil. Last week he lost out in his attempt to be selected for the South Down constituency in the upcoming local election.