Checks on agri-food products entering Northern Ireland are not legally required because of its defined territorial standing within the United Kingdom, the High Court has heard.
Counsel for DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots claimed post-Brexit regulations governing import controls place no obligation on his officials to carry out inspections.
Mr Poots is being challenged for instructing Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) staff to stop checking goods coming into the region’s ports from Great Britain.
Judgment was reserved following a two-day hearing.
Mr Poots took the step in February this year amid his party’s ongoing opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol – a regime aimed at avoiding a hard border with the Irish Republic.
Unionists claim the arrangements, which involve inspecting British products to ensure compliance with EU laws, threatens the region’s status in the UK.
The Minister said he had received legal advice that he could order a halt to the checks in the absence of approval from the wider Stormont Executive.
Inspections are continuing, however, under a court order imposed pending the outcome of judicial review proceedings.
A Sinn Fein member granted anonymity, another applicant named Edward Rooney, and Belfast City Council are all challenging the lawfulness of Mr Poots’ decision.
They contend that the checks must be carried out due to a fundamental change in the customs relationship between Britain and Northern Ireland.
The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and the Protocol imposes a requirement in domestic law to apply rules separately from the rest of the UK, the court heard.
But John Larkin KC, representing the Minister, disputed those claims based on an interpretation of the relevant EU Official Control Regulations (OCR).
According to Mr Larkin the OCR stipulates checks are required when products first arrive from an outside territory.
The regulations also set out one territory as being the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“Goods coming (into Northern Ireland) from Great Britain do not enter from outside those territories,” the barrister said.
“The words really couldn’t be clearer.”
Earlier, counsel for the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) told the court that regulations were reapplied under the Withdrawal Agreement and indicated an agreed territory of Northern Ireland at the exclusion of “the United Kingdom of Great Britain”.
Tony McGleenan KC said that despite OCR protection for the entire UK, the territory of Northern Ireland is “governed by the EU norms”.
He argued: “What it means fundamentally is that the United Kingdom cannot be treated as a unitary state for the purposes of phytosanitary checks.”
“The position of the Government is clear and aligns with the position which it had been understood DAERA was following until late in 2021."
Following closing submissions Mr Justice Colton pledged: “I will endeavour to give a judgment as soon as I can.”
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