A Stormont minister has been challenged by executive colleagues over his controversial decision to halt work on permanent inspection posts for Brexit port checks in Northern Ireland.
The move by DUP Agriculture Minister Gordon Lyons was debated during a scheduled meeting of the devolved executive on Monday morning.
Ministers from Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance Party – the three pro-remain executive parties – contend that he does not have the authority to act unilaterally on issues considered significant or controversial.
It is understood Attorney General Brenda King concurred with this view on Monday and advised that, under the terms of the ministerial code, Mr Lyons would be required to bring such proposals to the wider executive.
Mr Lyons is set to hold talks with Ms King ahead of further discussions on the matter on Tuesday.
Before that, the minister is set to face further scrutiny on the floor of the Stormont Assembly on Monday afternoon by way of an urgent oral question.
Mr Lyons’s announcement late on Friday afternoon represented the DUP’s latest bid to undermine the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol, which governs Irish Sea trade between Britain and the region post-Brexit.
As well as ordering officials to halt work on planned permanent inspection facilities for regulatory checks on agri-food goods arriving from Britain, he also stopped further recruitment of inspection staff and said charges would not be levied at the ports on traders bringing goods into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
Irish Sea trade checks required under the terms of the protocol are currently taking place at existing repurposed port buildings and other temporary facilities.
Those temporary entry points will continue to operate. Mr Lyons’s decision relates to ongoing work on new purpose-built inspection facilities.
Permanent facilities are due to be built at Belfast, Larne, Warrenpoint and Foyle ports. Physical construction has not commenced at any of the sites, with work currently still in the design and preparatory phases.
The DUP and other unionist parties in Northern Ireland are pushing for the protocol to be ditched, claiming it has driven an economic wedge between the region and Britain, undermining the Union as a consequence.
Explaining his rationale on Friday, Mr Lyons said his move was in response to the “practical difficulties” caused by the protocol.
He cited uncertainty over the movement of goods when grace periods currently limiting protocol bureaucracy end at the start of April.
Mr Lyons’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has been fulfilling the UK government’s legal duty to construct the facilities under the terms of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
Last year the minister’s predecessor and DUP colleague Edwin Poots also explored the potential of ordering a stop to construction but stepped back from that position following legal advice.
Mr Poots instead distanced himself from the work and his senior officials took on responsibility for fulfilling the protocol obligations.
Mr Lyons cited UK domestic legislation – in the form of the Internal Market Act – in arguing he has a “legal duty” to stop the work.
He said that law compelled him to always act with special regard to Northern Ireland’s place within the UK’s internal market.
Asked about his obligation to fulfil the UK’s responsibilities under the Brexit international treaty, Mr Lyons insisted he was acting in a “reasonable and proportionate” manner in response to the uncertainty around the protocol.
On Monday, the UK prime minister’s official spokesman insisted the issue was one for the executive to resolve.
“That is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive and we obviously remain in close contact with them,” he said.
“Goods, including food, continue to flow through ports in Northern Ireland with the existing, interim agri-foods facilities in place.”
Asked whether halting work would be a breach of the Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed between the UK and the European Union, the spokesman again said it was a matter for the devolved executive.
“We will obviously will continue to liaise and speak to them.”