Unionist politician tried to water down British law against Northern Ireland protocol

One of Northern Ireland’s leading unionist politicians lobbied the UK government to water down legislation giving UK ministers the power to tear up the post-Brexit deal that regulates trade in Northern Ireland, according to a letter viewed by the Financial Times.

The Democratic Unionist Party has expressed support for the legislation, which threatens to unilaterally wipe out the so-called Northern Ireland protocol that has disrupted relations between London and Brussels since Brexit.

Despite the protocol’s condemnation from the trade unions, former DUP leader Edwin Poots wrote to the British 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 vetoed Northern Ireland’s political institutions since May to press its demands for sweeping changes to the post-Brexit trade regime.

Poots on Friday defended his move, arguing that while the protocol was “totally unacceptable,” it was “entirely reasonable” to try to support farmers.

“There is nothing wrong with cherry picking,” he told the FT, adding that Northern Ireland should have “the ability to react to certain circumstances if necessary”.

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

Article 10 of the deal left Northern Ireland goods and farm support under the EU’s state aid scheme, but the region was given a generous £382 million annual exemption for farm subsidies.

In the letter to George Eustice, then UK Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Poots said it was “unacceptable” that the Northern Ireland Protocol Act, if passed, would force farmers in the region to accept the same farm subsidy regime as the rest of Ireland. the UK.

While noting his “deep-seated” concerns about the Protocol, Poots argued that “as far as agriculture is concerned, the State aid arrangements . . . of the Protocol allow for significant policy flexibility for Northern Ireland”.

Since Brexit, EU state aid rules no longer apply to Britain, which has created a tailor-made UK subsidy regime through the Subsidy Control Act that will come into effect on January 4.

The new British regime, Poots argued, would be less generous to Northern Irish farmers than the existing arrangements under the existing protocol.

He said the UK’s subsidy control regime, when applied to agriculture, would “cause significant problems” for farmers across the country, and that “the proposed Northern Ireland Protocol Act will now extend these problems directly to Northern Ireland”.

Poots concluded: “Northern Ireland’s Protocol Act proposes to leave aside the subsidy control approach we currently have (which works) and [UK’s Subsidy Control Act] (which doesn’t work) to Northern Ireland. This is unacceptable and we need a solution.”

Poots said he “doesn’t recall” receiving a response from London. The Agriculture Department of Northern Ireland said: “The agricultural policy framework is compatible with the Northern Ireland Protocol and has been designed in that context.

“If the NI Protocol Act were to continue as it is currently drafted, it would override the EU state aid framework and bring NI farming within the scope of the UK’s domestic subsidy control regime. That makes different demands and the agricultural policy framework should be assessed in the light of this different regime.”

The UK government said on Friday that the protocol bill would “solve the practical issues” in the event that a negotiated solution to implementing the protocol could not be reached.

“The bill will resolve the unacceptable differences in tax and spending between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country, allowing businesses across the UK to benefit from the same support and subsidies,” a spokesman added.

Poots was forced to resign as Agriculture Minister at the end of October after a legal deadline to reinstate Northern Ireland’s government expired. Officials are now in charge of the region and London has said new elections will be held early next year unless executive power is restored.

A leading industry figure said the protocol had enabled Poots to provide £50 million in support to beef and other farmers to enable them to produce sustainably.

“The protocol would allow him to take advantage of the opportunity to put £50m into those measures,” the person said, adding that farmers in other parts of the UK were jealous of them. If the bill passed, he added, “we would have absolutely no idea what the future policy is”.

Talks between London and Brussels on the protocol have resumed in a more upbeat tone, but Secretary of State James Cleverly stressed this month that neither side had yet to resolve any of the difficult issues and that he was “yet [to] see a route through”.

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