The Stormont Agriculture Minister has warned the European Union to “back off” when it comes to goods moving between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Edwin Poots warned that the people of Northern Ireland could be “hurt” as a consequence of “horse-trading deals”.
There are just months until the end of the Brexit transition period at the end of the year.
The Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the Brexit divorce deal, will see the region continue to enforce the EU’s customs rules and follow its rules on product standards.
Mr Poots had previous stated that he had “no intention of facilitating infrastructure at Northern Ireland ports”.
However his department has been instructed to start work on checkpoints at Northern Ireland’s sea ports without delay.
SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone questioned Mr Poots about the implications of infrastructure at Larne Port not being ready for the end of the transition period.
Mr Poots said he does not believe the IT system, which he described as critically important, will be ready either.
The minister said that his department has been working closely with the UK Government and has warned them “over and over again” that Northern Ireland needs to retain unfettered access to the Great Britain market.
“Whilst the UK Government have made it clear that trade between Northern Ireland and GB will be unfettered, and the EU hasn’t accepted that by the way, and the EU need to back off and accept the fact that if Britain wants to accept goods from Northern Ireland unfettered, they can butt out,” he said.
“Northern Ireland needs to be getting the most minimal checks possible in terms of goods coming from GB, and the EU needs to ensure that that happens and that the people of Northern Ireland are not hurt as a consequence of their horse-trading deals.”
Mr Poots also railed against the protocol as a “Westminster imposed solution to an Irish problem on Northern Ireland”, and commented that he “does not necessarily trust those people who are negotiating on our behalf because we have been let down too many times before”.
The minister said that his officials are working to “minimise the need for infrastructure”.
But Mr Poots warned that Northern Ireland “cannot become a backdoor” for goods coming via the Republic of Ireland, “like Albania was at one stage in Europe where it was a place where goods could come in and be transited to other places”.
“We need to ensure that the integrity of our food system is maintained, and for that reason the suggested six months free for all, which the UK Government seemed to be inclined to go to, is something that I am fighting,” he added.
The minister outlined that £43 million of funding has been secured for building work, additional staff and IT.
He said award letters for the design and build of proposed inspection facilities at Warrenpoint, Larne and Belfast harbours were issued to contractors on October 7, with meetings to agree timelines for the work to be held in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile Mr Poots said the UK Government had indicated it would replace EU funding, and “considerable work has been going on in reference to that”.
But he warned that Covid-19 is “inflicting huge damage upon the Treasury”.
“The cost to the Treasury is mounting all the time so there is significant pressures there, and one can never be absolutely sure so we always need to be acute to these things,” he said.