Northern Ireland

Analysis: Edwin Poots' latest stunt has all the hallmarks of electioneering and desperation

UK Border Force officers padlocking the exit gates at Belfast port's point of entry of goods from Britain. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire
UK Border Force officers padlocking the exit gates at Belfast port's point of entry of goods from Britain. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

IF Edwin Poots' political career is in its final weeks, he's determined not to go quietly. He's front and centre in the assembly's climate change debate, he's making things awkward for Sir Jeffrey Donaldson's assembly election candidate selection, and now he's escalated the dispute around the protocol by taking the unilateral decision to withdraw staff conducting post-Brexit checks at ports.

It's the nuclear option he's been threatening for weeks and while ostensibly it looks like an act of war, the outworkings may prove much more mundane.

The agriculture minister has been a reluctant overseer of the checks for the past 13 months, while the rival TUV has made much of the 'Poots' posts' and his role in implementing an aspect of the withdrawal agreement that unionism tells us daily it doesn't agree with.

In a move that other parties dismissed as a stunt, Mr Poots sought to secure the wider approval of the Stormont executive to continue checks on goods arriving from Britain, knowing that if his paper was ever tabled, the DUP would veto it. But he also believed that if fellow ministers declined to consider his proposal then he wouldn't have legal cover to continue the checks. For him it was a win-win scenario – the executive was damned if it did and damned if it didn't. And unlike his party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Mr Poots chose to make good his threat.

It was unclear last night where the legal advice advice on which he's acted came from but if matters aren't resolved quickly, we can expect it to be pored over in fine detail by the courts. Judges don't like to make political decisions but as staff have been withdrawn based on legal arguments, their intervention is inevitable.

The political reaction will also be critical. Will the British government wash its hands of responsibility by claiming this is a matter for the executive, triggering EU and US anger? The Tories aren't in an especially good place at the moment and could do with a distraction from the 'partygate' fallout but are they really so expedient and short-sighted to think this 'running off with the ball' approach will give them an advantage in this long game?

It may be coincidence that Mr Poots received a bloody nose in the assembly on Tuesday night and his prospects of re-election to the assembly diminish by the day, yet his actions have all the hallmarks of electioneering and even desperation.

Cast your mind back to this time last year when in tandem with Mid & East Antrim Council, staff were pulled from Larne port amid apparent security concerns. That episode ended badly for the DUP and there's every likelihood this latest ill thought out caper, will go the same way.