The first minister of Northern Ireland was ready to resign on Thursday, as the controversy intensified over inspections of food and agricultural goods entering the region from Britain under post-Brexit rules.
BBC Radio Ulster reported that Paul Givan of the Democratic Unionist Party, which heads the executive to share power, has written his resignation letter and it is expected to be made public later in the day by DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.
The move, which opponents rejected as a pre-election ploy to increase pressure on the UK government as it negotiates with the EU to ease Brexit trade frictions, will paralyze the Stormont government weeks before the May 5th regional election.
The DUP, which did not immediately confirm the reports, shares power with the nationalist Sinn Fein party. If Givan resigns, it will cause the departure of Deputy Prime Minister Michel O’Neill. Other ministers will remain in place to implement the pre-agreed policy, but could not make new decisions.
The prospect of leaving Givan came hours after DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Putts ordered an end to agricultural inspections of goods at midnight – and hours before renewed EU-UK talks on how to ease post-Brexit trade frictions in the region.
The so-called Northern Ireland Protocol left the region within the EU’s single market with a trade border set up in the Irish Sea to avoid the return of a hard trade border to the island of Ireland. However, the DUP says inspections of British goods are undermining its place in the UK.
John Martin, political manager for Northern Ireland at the Road Transport Association, said UK and Northern Ireland officials had confirmed that agricultural inspections continued on Thursday, despite Poates’ order to his permanent secretary, Anthony Harbinson, to stop them.
“There is a contradiction between the ministerial instruction and the legal requirements. “The permanent secretary gets legal advice because he finds himself between a rock and an anvil,” Martin said.
But Paul Jackson, the group’s commercial director at McBurney Transport, said he had heard that “several carriers called in for inspection ignored the request and left the port” as the legal dispute continues.
Poates told BBC Radio Ulster that his permanent secretary had to finalize the financial details for the suspension of the inspections, but that if they did not stop within days, “this would have further consequences for Stormont”.
Doug Beatty, leader of the Union Party in Ulster, said the removal of Givan from the executive branch would only create further destabilization and “ultimately the protocol will still be there”.
“It smells of despair,” said Deirdre Hienan, a professor at the University of Ulster, noting that any other attempt by the DUP to get rid of the protocol had failed. After months of threats to oust Stormont, unless border checks on the Irish Sea are lifted, he had to deliver something to his supporters before the election, she said.
Although Putt’s decision runs counter to the EU’s withdrawal agreement, George Justis, secretary of the environment, food and rural affairs, told the municipality on Thursday that agricultural food inspections were a “decentralized issue”, adding that they were ” completely unnecessary at this stage ”in order for the UK Government to intervene.
Acknowledging that the protocol was “causing significant problems” in Northern Ireland, he said that “the inspections are actually ongoing, there is no change at the moment”.
Labor has accused ministers of acting as “strange observers”, while the Brexit deal negotiated by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is “falling apart”.
“The protocol was signed into international law by the UK government and they are now bystanders as their deal falls apart – pathetically claiming that it is someone else’s responsibility,” Peter Kyle, the shadow secretary of Northern Ireland, told lawmakers.
A spokesman for the European Commission said the order to suspend agricultural inspections was “useless” and reminded the UK government to abide by the agreement it signed.
Additional reports by Laura Hughes
Britain after the Brexit bulletin
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