Edwin Poots' department hands back £5m earmarked for easing protocol hitches
DUP MINISTER Edwin Poots has been told to "stop taking people for fools" after it emerged that his department underspent almost £5 million earmarked to build border posts at the north's ports.
The underspend was revealed by Finance Minister Conor Murphy on Thursday.
The Sinn Féin minister said the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) had returned £4.9 million of funds that related "boundary regulatory inspection capability work" that "did not progress in line with the original estimates".
Mr Poots attempted to halt construction on the posts last year but stepped back due to the legal obligations.
He instead distanced himself from the work and his senior officials took on responsibility for fulfilling the protocol obligations.
The outgoing DUP leader's colleague Gordon Lyons, who deputised for Mr Poots earlier this year, controversially ordered officials to stop work on border control posts in February.
The inspection facilities at the north's four main ports are used to check goods arriving from Britain.
Mr Poots has previously claimed the Northern Ireland Protocol was causing “demonstrable harm to every individual in Northern Ireland” and is having a “devastating impact” on the region.
He has urged the British government to consider triggering Article 16 of the protocol, which allows either side to suspend any part of the agreement that causes "economic, societal or environmental difficulties".
But according to SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone, a member of Stormont's agriculture and environment scrutiny committee, the public would be "shocked" to learn that funds designed to ease the difficulties created by the post-Brexit trade arrangements had been unspent.
The Mid-Ulster representative said there were daily claims of "huge delays and disruption caused by these protocol-linked inspections".
"People will rightly ask how inspections are supposed to take place in a timely manner when millions of pounds allocated to deal with such delays remains unspent," he said.
"The DUP's actions over the last five years led directly to the creation of the Brexit protocol, now they're complaining about its implementation – they should stop taking people for fools."
Mr McGlone urged the minister ensure the border posts were built to the agreed specifications.
"The minister should get on with the job of building the required inspection facilities, so that we see a further reduction in inspection delays and can focus on making processes as streamlined possible to mitigate the challenges and realise the benefits that the protocol brings," he said.
Daera was contacted yesterday but failed to resond to requests to provide an explanation for the underspend and state what the total allocation for boundary regulatory inspection capability work has been in the last 12 months.