New checking facilities for goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain will not be ready for the end of the Brexit transition period, a senior official has confirmed.
Contingency arrangements are being prepared, including the repurposing of old buildings and an interim paper-based checking system, when the requirement for additional regulatory checks at ports comes into effect on January 1.
Denis McMahon, the permanent secretary in the Department of Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs, said he and his colleagues had been left in an “impossible position” as they worked on a project that was openly opposed by their minister, Edwin Poots.
He told his Assembly scrutiny committee: “My message to you today is, despite monumental efforts by the team, not everything will be place by the 1st of January 2021.”
Mr McMahon said his department was legally obliged to introduce the new SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) checking facilities and would be acting unlawfully if they did not proceed with the work.
“We are caught in an impossible position and the impossible position we’re caught in is that we do work to ministers, I absolutely believe in the democratic principle of working to ministers, it’s not just something I do as a day job, I absolutely believe in that,” he said.
“However, I am also absolutely required to comply with the law and what we found is because we have been put in an impossible situation as a result of the wider politics around this we find ourselves having to navigate our way through this process.
“It may not look pretty but we have been very open and very honest about where we’ve been.”
The official said, while Mr Poots maintained his opposition to the project, the DUP minister had acknowledged the legal requirement, both in domestic and international law, to set up the infrastructure.
The committee heard that procurement, planning and IT issues had delayed work on the new port facilities.
Mr McMahon said lack of clarity on what checks were required, due to the ongoing absence of agreement between the EU and UK on the issue, was severely hampering their efforts.
He told committee members the project had now been given a red status, meaning it could not be delivered as planned within the January 1 deadline.
Mr Poots had indicated to the Assembly on Tuesday that it was almost certain the facilities would not be ready for the end of the transition period.
On Thursday, Mr McMahon said officials did not know what size of facilities were needed, as the level of checking requirements had not been agreed by the joint EU/UK Joint Committee on the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Under the protocol, which is contained in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, Northern Ireland will remain in the EU Single Market for goods when the transition period ends.
That will required additional regulatory checks for animal-based food products entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
Mr McMahon said it was crucial that the committee was able to agree to minimise the checks required.
He said if there was no agreement on minimisation the average supermarket lorry coming from Great Britain would require 400 separate certifications to enter Northern Ireland.
“In that context we can implement what we like but without help from the UK and the EU to simplify the processes involved we will not be able to deliver the level of frictionless trade we have today,” he added.