Unionist politician tried to dilute UK’s Northern Ireland protocol bill

One of Northern Ireland’s leading unionist politicians lobbied the British government to dilute legislation that gives UK ministers powers to tear up the post-Brexit deal governing trade in Northern Ireland, according to a letter seen by the Financial Times.

The Democratic Unionist party has expressed support for the legislation, which threatens to unilaterally sweep away the so-called Northern Ireland protocol that has bedevilled relations between London and Brussels since Brexit.

However, despite unionist condemnation of the protocol, former DUP leader Edwin Poots wrote to the UK government last July, while serving as Northern Ireland’s agriculture minister, to argue that the region’s farmers would be better off under the protocol.

The DUP has since May vetoed Northern Ireland’s political institutions to press its demands for sweeping changes to the post-Brexit trading regime.

Poots on Friday defended his move, arguing that while the protocol was “wholly unacceptable”, it was “entirely reasonable” to seek to be able to support farmers.

“There’s nothing wrong with cherry picking,” he told the FT, adding that Northern Ireland needed to “have the ability to respond to particular circumstances if necessary”. 

Under the protocol agreed in 2019 between the EU and the UK, Northern Ireland continued to follow EU rules on goods trade to avoid the return of a trade border on the island of Ireland.

Article 10 of the deal left Northern Irish goods and agricultural support subject to the EU’s state aid regime — but the region was granted a generous £382mn annual exemption for farm subsidies.

In the letter to George Eustice, then UK environment, food and rural affairs secretary, Poots said it was “unacceptable” that the Northern Ireland protocol bill, if enacted, would force the region’s farmers to accept the same agricultural subsidy regime as the rest of the UK.

While noting his “deep-seated” concerns over the protocol, Poots argued that “in so far as agriculture is concerned, the state aid arrangements . . . of the protocol, provide significant policy flexibility for Northern Ireland”.

Since Brexit, EU state aid rules no longer apply to Great Britain which, via the Subsidy Control Act, has created a bespoke British subsidy regime that will take effect on January 4.

The new UK regime, Poots argued, would be less generous to Northern Ireland’s farmers than existing arrangements with the protocol in place.

He said the UK subsidy control regime, when applied to agriculture, would “create significant difficulties” for farmers all over the country, and that “the proposed Northern Ireland protocol bill will now extend these difficulties directly to Northern Ireland”. 

Poots concluded: “The Northern Ireland protocol bill is proposing to disapply the approach to subsidy control that we currently have (which works) and extending the [UK’s Subsidy Control Act] (which doesn’t work) to Northern Ireland. This is unacceptable and we need a solution.” 

Poots said he “can’t recall” receiving a response from London. Northern Ireland’s agriculture ministry said: “The agricultural policy framework is compatible with the Northern Ireland Protocol and was designed in that context.

“If the NI Protocol Bill were to be progressed as currently drafted, that would remove the EU State Aid framework and bring NI agriculture within scope of the UK domestic subsidy control regime. That imposes a different set of requirements and the agricultural policy framework would need to be assessed in light of this different regime.”

The UK environment department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Poots had to step down as agriculture minister at the end of October after a legal deadline to restore the Northern Ireland executive passed. Civil servants are now in charge of running the region and London has said new elections will be called early next year unless the executive is restored.

One senior industry figure said the protocol had allowed Poots to provide £50mn in support for beef and other farmers to enable them to produce sustainably.

“With the protocol, he could avail of the option of putting the £50mn into those measures,” the person said, adding that farmers in other parts of the UK were envious of them. If the bill were passed, he added, “we would have absolutely no idea what future policy is”.

Talks between London and Brussels on the protocol have resumed with a more upbeat tone, but foreign secretary James Cleverly this month stressed that both sides had yet to resolve any of the difficult issues and that he had “yet [to] see a route through”.

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