A Stormont minister has been challenged on why he and some of his officials were at odds on whether the import of cricket pitch clay is banned under the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots issued a statement on Wednesday night insisting the material known as loam was not prohibited under the terms of the new Irish Sea trade arrangements.
Thursday’s Assembly Agriculture committee hearing was told that Mr Poots’ statement contradicted advice previously issued by his department.
Offering an explanation, Mr Poots told the committee a departmental official may have provided an “initial position” but he said his department had now reached a different view on the status of loam.
Loam is usually imported into Northern Ireland from three counties in England.
It help stabilise cricket wickets, giving the ball a predictable bounce.
Ulster Unionist committee member Rosemary Barton told Mr Poots recent emails sent by officials stated the import of loam was “currently prohibited” under EU rules.
Cricketing figures within Northern Ireland had raised concerns following that advice, warning that pitches used for generations might have to be dug up and replaced.
“There has been confusion,” Mrs Barton told Mr Poots.
“Earlier in the week some of the Daera (Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs) officials said ‘I regret to inform you that importation of these products from Great Britain, as a third country, to Northern Ireland is currently prohibited’.
“Yet the minister yesterday put out a statement saying that this was not the case, that it was fine to import the loam?”
She added: “I’m not saying your statement’s wrong but is there an issue or is there confusion? Could you clarify it please.”
The NI protocol prohibits the import of GB soil into Northern Ireland, albeit that ban has been temporarily lifted unilaterally by the UK while it seeks to address the issue in the longer term.
Mr Poots said he became aware of the loam issue on Wednesday morning and instigated further investigations.
The minister said his department had decided that the composition of loam meant it was not consider a sanitary or phytosanitary (SPS) product, so therefore was not covered by the wider soil restrictions.
“I became aware of this issue yesterday morning, I activated things and got the key people involved in it,” Mr Poots told the committee.
“On investigation it was identified that this loam is probably around 70% clay, and sand-based beyond that, so it isn’t something which meets the requirements of SPS and consequently at a senior departmental level, in conjunction with myself, we were able to make a decision that this would not require SPS checks.
“So, an official may have have given an initial position, I’m giving the departmental position, and the departmental position is we can import Surrey loam, which now comes from three counties.”
He added: “I’m giving the position of Daera on this, we don’t have an issue with the import of the loam.
“As a consequence of this, cricket clubs will be able to use that in the latter part of the year whenever they start to replace the damage that has been done as a result of a season’s cricket.”
Mr Poots’ statement on Wednesday night did not mention the differing advice issued through Daera and instead said “commentary” and “media reports” had caused concern within the cricketing community.