The European Union is “damaging the peace process” in Northern Ireland through its actions following Brexit, the North's environment minister has said.
Former DUP leader Edwin Poots answered questions at Stormont about the Northern Ireland Protocol and his party’s decision to withdraw from north/south political bodies.
Mr Poots told MLAs that any damage caused by boycotting the cross-border institutions would be less than the damage currently being caused by the protocol.
The protocol was agreed by the UK and EU as a way to maintain a free-flowing land border on the island of Ireland after Brexit.
Unionists in the North have been vehemently opposed to its terms, which see additional checks on goods arriving to the region from the rest of the UK.
As part of the DUP’s campaign of opposition, leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson announced last week his party’s immediate withdrawal from cross-border political institutions established on the island of Ireland under the Good Friday peace agreement.
Alliance MLA John Blair asked Mr Poots what assessment he had made on the environmental impact of this withdrawal from the north/south bodies.
Mr Poots said: “It will have considerably less of an impact than the Northern Ireland Protocol; well over 70% of our goods which come into Northern Ireland come in from Great Britain, some 419,000 HGVs per annum.
“People cannot just believe that they can drive a coach and horses through east/west relationships without there being some sort of consequence for it.”
Ulster Unionist MLA Rosemary Barton asked if there had been discussions at recent north/south meetings regarding difficulties that the protocol had created for the agriculture industry in Northern Ireland.
Mr Poots said: “There has been many discussions.
“I think that I have corresponded both in writing and in telephone conversations with my colleagues in the UK Government on over 50 occasions and that is not to mention the dozens of meetings where I have raised the difficulties caused by the protocol.
“I have also raised the issues with colleagues in the Irish Republic and indicated to them the damage that is being done to relationships as a consequence of their support for the protocol, and in particular Leo Varadkar’s bad behaviour when he took photographs from the 1970s and said this is what could potentially be happening in Northern Ireland.
“Disgraceful actions, and, as a consequence we have a European Union which argues they are doing this to protect the peace process, whenever their actions are actually damaging to the peace process.”
Pressed on Mr Donaldson’s pledge to withdraw from the north/south bodies, Mr Poots added: “The party leader has made a statement and the party leader will stand over the statement as will the ministers.
“Therefore that is going to cause problems.
“We understand that is going to cause problems.
“It is going to cause problems for other parties because the basis of the agreement we are in here is that we engage in north/south meetings, but that decision has been taken that we cannot have that normality of relationships with north/south while we have this disturbance in east/west relationships.”
Sinn Féin MLA John O’Dowd said the DUP boycott of the north/south ministerial council would cause problems for farmers.
He added: “You took a pledge that you will serve all of the people equally, but also to participate fully in the executive committee, the north/south ministerial council and the British/Irish council.
“You have already broken that pledge.
“How can anyone take you or your party as being a man of your word or a party that will stand by their word?”
Mr Poots responded: “The farmers I am speaking to are telling me that this can’t go on.
“It would be much better if you actually stood with us on this issue and said to Europe, stop hurting the people that I represent.
“I shouldn’t have to do it on your behalf, but I am.
“You are hurting your own people by looking for the rigorous implementation of the protocol.”