Border control posts at Northern Ireland’s ports will not be ready before 2023, a Stormont committee has been told – despite a date of June 2021 having previously been given.
In November last year, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) said the controls required post-Brexit would be in place by the summer of this year.
However, department permanent secretary Denis McMahon has now told the Agriculture Committee the projected date of completion is January 2023.
Officials will not have final options ready until October 2021 and the Northern Ireland Executive will need to grant approval before any work gets underway.
Construction is then expected to take “more than a year”.
Speaking to the Agriculture Committee on Thursday, Dr Mahon said the contingency measures in place “have worked well”, but admitted they were “not perfect”.
“They’re not suitable for long-term,” he said.
WATCH: Dr Denis McMahon speaking at the Agriculture Committee
The committee heard that contractors were being asked to halt work for six weeks to allow time for Daera to work through the issues that had emerged.
The possible cost in terms of compensation for the contractors has been estimated at £300,000.
Details around the delays come as Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis and Brexit Minister Lord Frost met with Irish Foreign Affairs Ministers Simon Coveney.
Downing Street confirmed the meeting was “part of regular bilateral engagement”.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is also meeting Mr Coveney on Thursday, while Lord Frost is due to meet European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic later in the evening.
“The meeting is part of an ongoing process with the EU to resolve outstanding differences on the Northern Ireland Protocol,” Number 10 said.
Britain and the EU are still trying to resolve the problems over the Northern Ireland Protocol in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement.
The protocol has been blamed as one of the factors behind the recent upsurge of violence in loyalist areas amid concerns in those communities it has weakened their place in the United Kingdom.
Under the terms of the Protocol, goods moving from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland may be subject to checks.
The measures are intended to protect the EU single market while maintaining an open land border between the North and the Republic in line with the Good Friday peace process.
However, critics have warned that the way it has been implemented has given rise to renewed sectarian tensions, at the same time as hampering the free flow of goods within the UK.
Meanwhile, relations between London and Brussels have been further strained after the EU announced last month it was taking legal action in response to a unilateral decision by the UK to extend a series of “grace periods” intended to ease the introduction of the new controls.
Ahead of Thursday evening’s meeting between Lord Frost and Mr Sefcovic, an EU spokesman said they would “take stock of ongoing technical work” on the protocol.
A UK Government spokesman said there were still “significant differences” which needed to be resolved if they were to rebuild confidence in the agreement among communities in Northern Ireland.
“This meeting is part of our ongoing engagement with the EU to work through the outstanding issues with the protocol, in order to restore confidence on the ground, reflect the needs of communities and respect all dimensions of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement,” the spokesman said.
“The discussions so far have been constructive but there are still significant differences that need to be resolved.
“Both the UK and EU are continuing to engage with business, civil society and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland to understand the issues they are facing.”
Meanwhile, the European Parliament’s foreign affairs and trade committees will vote on Thursday on the post-Brexit trade deal, but no date has yet been set for a full plenary vote to ratify the agreement.
The Trade and Co-operation Agreement, reached by Mr Johnson with Brussels on Christmas Eve, has been in place provisionally since the start of the year.
The UK agreed to extend the provisional application until the end of April, but a date has still not been set for MEPs to approve it as they remain concerned about the implementation of the earlier Withdrawal Agreement.
Downing Street said it had agreed the April extension and expected the EU “to complete their processes to this timeline”.