Northern Ireland news

Irish Sea inspection staff adverts 'not authorised', Edwin Poots says

Agriculture minister Edwin Poots. File picture by Kelvin Boyes, Press Eye

Adverts to recruit staff to carry out Irish Sea border checks were "not authorised," agriculture minister Edwin Poots has said.

Mr Poots was accused of making a U-turn on an earlier decision not to recruit more port staff amid the ongoing row over the Northern Ireland Protocol which has effectively created a border in the Irish Sea.

Work on permanent inspection posts at the north's ports was halted last month.

The move came weeks after post-Brexit checks at Belfast and Larne ports were stopped and staff were withdrawn amid concerns for their safety.

Mr Poots said he only became aware on Wednesday that officials had decided to recruit additional staff for border control posts.

The DUP minister, whose party remains strongly opposed to the Protocol, said the recruitment had "no authorisation" and that he would be requesting an explanation.

However, a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture said the adverts, issued on Monday, mistakenly indicated it was seeking inspectors solely at ports.

"The Department issued an advert on 22 March seeking to recruit Agricultural Inspectors to enhance our current staffing levels – those staff would be deployed across a range of duties and locations, for example, sampling animals for animal disease control or investigating standards of animal welfare," she said.

"The advertisement issued incorrectly specified that new staff would be solely located to the Points of Entry.

"The Department has now withdrawn the recruitment exercise until further notice.

"Ministers are not involved in routine recruitment and therefore the Minister was unaware of this advert being placed.

"In line with the instruction from the previous Minister, and good governance, the Department will not be investing in staff for permanent portal facilities ahead of further clarity from the UK Government and consideration by the Northern Ireland Executive."

Mr Poots said the Permanent Secretary of his department was "not aware" of the recruitment campaign.

"This recruitment exercise will not continue as no authorisation was given for it.

"I am seeking a full explanation as to how this happened."

He said in line with an earlier announcement, the department "will not be investing further in port inspection facilities until the Government provides clarity".

Sinn Féin MLA Philip McGuigan, deputy chairman of the agriculture committee, said the row was "a total mess".

"It seems that the DUP are bringing their own dysfunctionality into the Daera department and also the Executive," he said.

"The DUP minister, whether it's Gordon Lyons or Edwin Poots, seems to be pulled in all directions by the DUP rather than dutifully discharging their functions as ministers."

Mr Lyons temporarily took over as agriculture minister for several weeks earlier this year while Mr Poots had cancer surgery.

Mr McGuigan said he would raise concerns over what communication Mr Lyons had with his most senior official about last month's halting of work on permanent inspection posts at the north's ports.

The Irish News had asked for any communication under the Freedom of Information Act but was told by the Department of Agriculture the information is exempt from disclosure because it "relates to formulation and development of government policy".

Mr McGuigan said he will ask questions about the department's response when the committee meets again after the Easter break.

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