By Jonathan McCambridge, PA
New DUP leader Edwin Poots has warned that relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic “have never been worse” because of the NI Protocol.
Mr Poots, Stormont’s Agriculture Minister, also told the Assembly that the cost of providing protocol checks on goods at Northern Ireland ports had already exceeded £24 million.
The protocol is the part of the Brexit deal which creates a trade border in the Irish Sea in order to prevent a hardening of the Irish land border.
But the new raft of checks on goods at the ports of Belfast and Larne have sparked anger among unionists and loyalists who feel the North is being separated from the rest of the UK.
Talks are continuing between the EU and the UK Government to solve some of the issues linked to the protocol.
At Stormont, SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone asked Mr Poots about the DUP’s policy of boycotting some North-South meetings due to their opposition to the protocol.
Mr McGlone said: “Given the importance of North-South working can he confirm that he will not obstruct any further North-South meetings?”
Mr Poots said: “I consider our relationship North-South to be very important.
“But I would say that relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have never been worse because the Republic of Ireland sought to create barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, our main trading partner.”
Mr Poots added: “So, Northern Ireland and Republic relations are very bad and they need to be fixed; but we need to get some reassurances that we are going to get somewhere considerably better than we currently are in terms of the protocol to fix those relations.”
The minister was then asked to set out the costs accrued so far on staffing protocol checks at ports in Northern Ireland.
Mr Poots said: “Over the course of the last year, since June 2020, we have developed the costs. The costs for vets, including managers, is £5,271,696. The other ancillary staff provided by DAERA (Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs) is £6,324,902, and environmental health officers and ancillary staff provided by district councils is some £12,848,034. A total of £24,440,632.”
DUP MLA Keith Buchanan said: “It is an example of the unacceptable nature of the protocol and the need for it to be replaced and challenged. These figures are staggering.”
Mr Poots responded: “One of the wrongs that has been demanded of us by the European Union is that these costs are passed to business, and when the grace period ends these costs will spiral considerably because we will be moving to what the department is suggesting will be some 15,000 checks a week, that is considerably greater than what we are doing now.
“Meanwhile, the EU is saying we need to pass these costs onto business. And you know who actually pays when we can’t pass the costs onto business? The consumers. And that is why I have repeatedly said that this protocol will hurt every single individual in Northern Ireland.
“I will continue to press hard with the UK Government on the issues which are at stake here, and the benefits I have is that the case is inarguable that this protocol is bad for Northern Ireland.”