AGRICULTURE MINISTER in Northern Ireland Edwin Poots has ordered his officials to stop post-Brexit checks at ports as part of a campaign against the Northern Ireland protocol.
Mr Poots made the announcement last night after he sought legal advice from senior counsel.
"Earlier today, I received that legal advice," he told the Stormont assembly.
"The advice concluded that I can direct the checks to cease in the absence of executive approval.
"I have now issued a formal instruction to my permanent secretary to halt all checks that were not in place on 31 December 2020 from midnight tonight."
However, it is as of yet unclear if the checks on goods along the Irish Sea Border have been halted.
The deputy first minister Michelle O'Neill responded to the direction on Twitter by saying it was "an attempt by the DUP to unlawfully interfere with domestic and international law".
"DUP fixated on their own priorities, which are clearly at odds with where the wider community is at," she said. "Health, Jobs, Housing, Cost of living crisis is where the rest of us are focused."
Just a few hours earlier, she had tweeted to say there were "encouraging reports of progress today from those at table."
Sinn Féin MLA Declan Kearney said the announcement to cease checks were "a reckless stunt from a minister who is no stranger to political chaos".
The party’s Brexit spokesperson said:
"The Executive, including all of its ministers, is legally obliged to comply with commitments set out in the Withdrawal Agreement and the Protocol.
"He is well aware that this announcement goes against his own Departmental obligations.
"This is a cynical attempt by the minister to shore up his own political position and that of his party as we face into the election.
"I call on him to reverse this decision immediately, and continue to carry out his legal obligations in line with the agreed position of the entire Executive."
There were reports last week after the visit of the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, to Northern Ireland that Westminster would not oppose Poots’ mooted move.
The checks on food and agriculture products came into force as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol signed by Boris Johnson and the EU to get his wider Brexit deal over the line.
British businesses currently face significant paperwork to comply with EU custom measures that are still observed in the north.
DUP East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson said the removal of checks at the Irish Sea ports was a welcome move that will save money for hard pressed families.
"The Irish Sea Border is costing Northern Ireland £2.5m every day," he said. "It is a barrier between us and our most important market as well as the rest of the UK. It must go. It is driving down consumer choice and driving up the price.
"The Alliance Party, Sinn Fein and the SDLP all campaigned for the Protocol’s rigorous implementation whilst the DUP has stood up to the EU and demanded better for Northern Ireland. The EU has been forced back to the negotiating table."
Social Democratic and Labour Party Brexit Spokesperson Matthew O’Toole MLA has accused the DUP of an egregious breach of its legal obligations following an order to civil servants to cease the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol at ports.
"The order given to civil servants this evening is outrageous, not only because it places them directly at odds with legal obligations that stem from the Northern Ireland Protocol, but because it is nakedly about electioneering," he said.
"The bar for standards in public life was fairly low for the DUP to begin with, but this is a further step into deeply unethical and unconscionable behaviour."
Paul Given resignation
Meanwhile, BBC's Radio Ulster's Nolan Show reports that First Minister Paul Given will announce his resignation later today.
The move would mean Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill, of Sinn Féin, also loses her position due to a power sharing agreement in the north.
Neither can stay in power if the other person resigns.