By Jonathan McCambridge, PA
Stormont’s Agriculture Minister has described checks on food travelling from Britain to be consumed in Northern Ireland as “illogical”.
DUP minister Edwin Poots blamed the European Union and the impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol for delays in moving live animals across the Irish Sea.
Under the protocol, Northern Ireland effectively remains in the EU’s single market for goods.
This avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland, but increases checks and barriers to trade on goods crossing the Irish Sea from Britain, making it a source of tension in unionist communities.
The UK and the EU have been locked in negotiations over the implementation of the protocol.
Mr Poots was asked about checks on animals at Larne Port during ministerial question time at Stormont.
He told MLAs: “Livestock checks have always been taking place at the Port of Larne, for at least 20 years now, certainly since foot and mouth outbreak.
“That has been done to ensure that the animal health status that we have is maintained.
“That should not be confused with the Northern Ireland Protocol and the impact of that.
“The European Union has made it incredibly difficult for people who are showing livestock in Great Britain and that has been hugely damaging to the pedigree sector and for the importation of lambs coming from Scotland.
“There has been considerable work done through veterinary officials to deal with these issues.
“I believe that my veterinary officials have proved to the European Union beyond all reasonable doubt that this causes no danger, no impact, no harm to the European Union single market; so therefore any potential delays at this stage are political delays.”
Sinn Féin MLA Philip McGuigan asked the minister if he had enough vets in his department to carry out the checks at Larne.
Mr Poots responded: “Yes we have.
“In terms of transferring veterinary staff to carry out the checks on groupage for example, where a lorry is carrying about 300 different food items to be used in a store such as Sainsbury’s, which doesn’t have a base in the Republic of Ireland, that would be an illogical thing to do.
“Yet it is being requested of us.
“I don’t think it is a good use of the veterinarians’ time.”
SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole asked: “Given that checks have already existed at the sea ports, doesn’t it make sense to minimise them and consolidate them in one location?”
Mr Poots said: “I am happy to assist the European Union with goods that may have the potential risk of entering the Republic of Ireland, that we would carry out those checks on their behalf. I think they should pay for it, mind you.
“It doesn’t have to be done at Newry, it doesn’t have to be done at the Fermanagh border, it can be done elsewhere.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be done at the ports either.
“But that should be separated out from the goods that are remaining in Northern Ireland, there should be no internal barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”