LONDON — Officials in Northern Ireland sought legal advice Thursday after a government minister ordered them to stop inspecting cargoes arriving from other parts of the U.K., in violation of the Brexit agreement between Britain and the European Union.
Shipments continued to move through the port of Belfast on Thursday morning, though it was unclear whether they were undergoing the required checks, Irish broadcaster RTE reported.
Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots late Wednesday ordered his staff to stop the inspections, saying they had not been authorized by the region’s power-sharing government.
The move is the latest episode in the battle over implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, part of the Brexit deal designed to keep trade flowing on the island of Ireland after Britain’s departure from the European Union. To do so, the U.K. agreed to inspect some goods entering Northern Ireland from England, Scotland and Wales. That angered many in Northern Ireland because it creates a barrier between the region and other parts of the U.K.
The Republic of Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said Poots’ decision was “effectively a breach of international law” because the protocol is part of an international treaty. The republic is an EU member, and the Northern Ireland frontier is the bloc’s only land border with the U.K.
“To deliberately frustrate obligations under that treaty would be a very serious matter indeed,” Coveney told Irish lawmakers late Wednesday. “It’s essentially playing politics with legal obligations.”
Poots’ decision comes amid political tensions in Northern Ireland ahead of elections for the regional legislative assembly that are set to take place in May. Reports in the British and Irish media suggest that First Minister Paul Givan may resign in the next few days, partly due to concerns about the protocol.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is scheduled to hold a virtual meeting later Thursday with Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s chief negotiator on Brexit issues, as the two sides try to resolve differences over implementation of the protocol. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who negotiated the Brexit deal, has called for the protocol to be renegotiated.
Brandon Lewis, the British government’s Northern Ireland secretary, said the government didn’t plan to intervene in Poots’ decision because the regional government has responsibility for the border checks under the U.K.’s system of devolved authority.
“This is a reflection of the frustration … that businesses and community people in Northern Ireland felt about the inability to get products from Great Britain into Northern Ireland the way that they should be able to,” Lewis said.
Mairead McGuinness, the Irish politician who serves as the European Commissioner for financial services, told RTE she planned to speak with Truss and Sefcovic later today.
“It’s very unhelpful,” she said. “We’re working tirelessly with the U.K. to find solutions.”