Stormont’s Agriculture Minister has denied stoking loyalist tensions by halting work on Irish Sea port checks.
Gordon Lyons rejected suggestions his bid to undermine the Northern Ireland Protocol, and similar moves by other unionists politicians, were contributing to a febrile atmosphere where threats and intimidation were on the increase.
Mr Lyons faced criticism from Sinn Fein, SDLP, Alliance and Green MLAs as he appeared before the Assembly to face an urgent oral question tabled by Sinn Fein’s Declan McAleer.
The minister’s DUP colleagues and other unionists MLAs backed his move, as they reiterated their calls for the protocol to be ditched.
Sinn Fein MLA Philip McGuigan highlighted mounting tensions within loyalism and noted that one of his party colleagues had recently been the subject of a threat due to his stance on the protocol.
“So minister, can I ask you if you bear any responsibility in terms of your decision, previous decisions made by your predecessor (Edwin Poots), other decisions made in unionist-dominated councils and public utterances and comments made by unionist politicians, if you bear any responsibility in the heightening of tension which has seen a rise in threats to elected representatives in recent days and weeks?” he asked.
Mr Lyons condemned all threats to politicians, but he denied contributing to the tensions.
“I have no hesitation whatsoever in condemning any such behaviour but I fail to see how what I have done on Friday could have any way have contributed to that,” he said.
“What I’m saying is that we’re facing a time of uncertainty, we don’t know what is going to be expected of us, we don’t know what’s going to be required of us in terms of what needs to take place at the ports, so I have decided to get that to stop.
“And I don’t quite see how those two things can be linked. But let’s be under no doubt whatsoever – this is a time of heightened tensions, particularly in the unionist community.
“I recognise that, and I see that, and that’s why I think we should all want to try and work together to find those solutions that work for people in Northern Ireland and don’t cut us off constitutionally and economically from the rest of the United Kingdom.”
TUV leader Jim Allister welcomed the decision to stop work on permanent inspection facilities and said he hoped Mr Lyons would follow up his decision with more actions to undermine the protocol.
“I welcome the minister’s move, I trust that it was based on a principle of opposition to the protocol and therefore will be carried through with other actions to unstitch the protocol,” he said.
Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt said one way to resolve the issues caused by the protocol would be for the EU and UK to grant the Irish Republic the same status as Northern Ireland under the Brexit deal – in terms of access to both the single market and the UK internal market.
He said any checks would then be at Irish Republic ports on goods moving between there and continental Europe.
“The EU would take back control of their inspections, we would solve all unionist objections and the Republic would benefit,” he said.
“So it would be a win, win, win.”
SDLP MLA Justin McNulty criticised Mr Lyons and claimed his “stunt” had diverted Executive attention from finalising Northern Ireland’s lockdown exit strategy.
“It is a smokescreen, it’s a farce,” he said.
“You didn’t halt any building, as building has not commenced.
“You have not halted the protocol, as there is recognition from both the UK and the EU that the protocol is going nowhere.”
Mr Lyons replied: “I wouldn’t agree with any of the points the member has made.”
The minister said he had made the move to enable him to seek clarity around what Northern Ireland is facing when grace periods limiting protocol bureaucracy lapse.
He said he was not going to commit to building structures that might ultimately not be needed.
Mr Lyons said he wanted to see what solutions the joint EU/UK committee on the implementation of the protocol might agree to address some of the problems facing traders.
“I think it’s entirely sensible that as those issues are being discussed, as the joint committee has said that they’re going to meet again to discuss some of these issues, that it’s only right that we wait and we see what comes out of discussions rather than do work which then might never be needed or required,” he told MLAs.
Mr Lyons added: “I think the steps that I’ve taken have been entirely reasonable and I would ask people whether their opposition to what I have done is based on common sense and practicality or is it just based on opposition to anything that they don’t like in relation to Brexit and the protocol.”