EU wants permanent border check sites in Northern Ireland by mid-2021

Northern Ireland minister faces huge criticism over decision to halt work on permanent border control posts.

EU wants permanent border check sites in Northern Ireland by mid-2021

LONDON — The European Commission said it still expects permanent post-Brexit border control posts to be up and running in Northern Ireland by the middle of this year, despite a recent order by a Northern Irish politician to halt the building of border infrastructure.

Commission spokesman Daniel Ferrie said Monday that the U.K. must meet its obligations under the Northern Ireland protocol, a key part of the Brexit agreement aimed at avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and preserving the Good Friday peace agreement.

His comments come after Gordon Lyons, Northern Ireland’s minister for agriculture and a Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) politician, issued a controversial order Friday evening to halt works on permanent facilities to check goods arriving from Great Britain, and put a stop to the recruitment of inspectors.

Permanent facilities are due to be built at Belfast, Larne, Warrenpoint and Foyle ports in Northern Ireland, but these projects are still in the design and preparatory phases. The DUP has been fiercely critical of the protocol.

But the Commission said it had been assured last week that Lyons’ decision will not affect post-Brexit checks already happening in Northern Ireland, which are taking place at repurposed port buildings and other temporary facilities.

“We expect the same commitment when it comes to the U.K. government’s obligations under the protocol regarding the permanent facilities that need to be put in place … by the middle of 2021, in line with the protocol and also in line with the Joint Committee decisions from last December,” Ferrie said, referring to the body overseeing implementation of the Brexit divorce deal.

Lyons’ move, which also put a stop to the levying of charges on traders bringing goods from the rest of the U.K., is popular among other unionist politicians, who want the protocol scrapped and replaced with arrangements allowing “unfettered” trade with Great Britain.

But the decision has infuriated rival politicians in Stormont, who accuse Lyons of heightening tensions in the region. Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Alliance Party, have all criticized the announcement.

Lyons on Monday faced a grilling in the Northern Ireland assembly over the move, which he said was “a result of the practical barriers and the legal uncertainties that currently exist” over the protocol.

Stormont’s legal advisers have been asked to provide an opinion on the decision, and Lyons may be asked to present his proposals to the wider devolved power-sharing government, the Northern Ireland Executive.

Lyons said he wanted to see what could be agreed by the U.K. and EU at the next meeting of the Joint Committee. He argued it was “entirely sensible” as talks continue to “wait and we see what comes out of discussions rather than do work which then might never be needed or required.” His move, he argued, would allow Northern Ireland’s government to “protect the public purse.”

A senior DUP politician said they expected the British government, which last week restated its commitment to the protocol, to encourage civil servants to sidestep Lyons’ instruction. “I am sure the ever cautious civil servants will try to find ways to ignore his instruction, but he does have good arguments for the decision he made, so I think he can make them stand,” the DUP politician said.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesman insisted Monday the issue is “a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive and we obviously remain in close contact with them.” He added: “Goods, including food, continue to flow through ports in Northern Ireland with the existing, interim agri-foods facilities in place.”