DAERA permanent secretary admits ‘acting against minister’s wishes’ over Brexit plans

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) permanent secretary Denis McMahon has admitted acting against the minister’s wishes to press on with plans for Brexit check facilities.

The permanent secretary told the Agriculture Committee meeting the deadline to get ready was “almost impossible”.

He told the committee clarity on how products should be labelled and issues of compatibility between the UK and EU IT infrastructure were two of the most significant sticking points.

‘Not everything will be in place by January 1’

“Despite monumental efforts by the team, not everything will be in place by January 1, 2021,” McMahon said.

The minister is opposed for legitimate reasons to what we are doing – or for political reasons – to what we are doing and also has some legitimate concerns about the operational issues as well.

“We now need the UK government, with the EU, to help us make this work for the benefit of everyone who lives and works in Northern Ireland.”

McMahon explained that there was a range of issues “which have had from the beginning, the potential to derail the schedule”.

“For example, physical constraints of the sites. Even without these kinds of delays, the deadline was almost impossible,” he said.

£45 million to get NI’s border checks ready

He outlined current costs for the “preferred option” (minimising necessary checks) were expected to sit at around £45 million.

The figure includes some £38 million required for upfront capital expenditure and around £6 million for the recruitment and training of additional staff and programme implementation costs.

“The option we have chosen – which is consistent with the minister’s approach – would save £14 million/annum from the maximum,” he said.

“But again it’s important to say that until we have contractors appointed, we will not be able to finalise these costs more effectively.”

Acting against the minister’s wishes

When asked by Agriculture Committee chairman Declan McAleer who he reported to, and why he was continuing to proceed when the minister did not wish for him to do so, McMahon responded: “I’m accountable to the minister generally, but in this case, I am acting against the minister’s wishes.

…We’re caught in an impossible position. And the impossible position is that we do work to ministers. I absolutely believe in the democratic principle of working to ministers, however, I am also absolutely required to comply with the law.

“And what we found is that because we have been put in an impossible situation, as a result of the wider politics around this, we have found ourselves having to navigate through this process, and that’s what we are doing.

“It may not look pretty, but we have been very honest and open about where we have been, and we have done it in a very clear way.”

Poots’ wishes

McMahon said there were “bigger political reasons” as to why the minister did not want to proceed and explained the minister hoped to minimise physical checks on goods and therefore a reduction in the scale of some of the facilities required.

“He is also clear about the need for a legally-binding framework which ensures continued unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to their key markets in Great Britain,” McMahon said.

However, I think it’s important to say that the minister is very clearly opposed – and he has made that statement – to the programme moving ahead.

“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 which we have today,” he said.

‘The challenge is now the legality of this’

“I think what’s different in this case is that we’ve got to a point where the minister feels like he hasn’t got the clarity from the UK government and from the EU. And in that situation, he feels that it would not be the right thing to do – to move forward and complete this,” he said.

If we were looking at this three years ago, I would think that that’s absolutely the right approach because there are very, very significant issues, which we would like to be able to deal with in better time – I’ve said that the last time we were here. The challenge now is around the legality of this.

“Because we know that we are now not going to have everything in place by January 1. But we also know that we need to comply with domestic law, and the UK needs to comply with international law.

“We just need to – there is no question about that – that’s my duty as an official.

“So we are proceeding with the work on that basis. I suppose the minister understands that there is a legal position and there is nothing that can be done about that other than to comply with the law.”