Ministers ‘must protect civil service impartiality’ in NI Protocol dispute

Union says Northern Ireland Civil Service officials are at risk of “inevitable accusations of politicisation” in row over Irish Sea border checks
The Port of Larne in Northern Ireland. Photo: Andrew Hill/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

By Jim Dunton

03 Feb 2022

Civil service union the FDA has warned ministers that officials in Northern Ireland must be insulated from escalating political wrangling over the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol.

Agriculture minister and former Democratic Unionist Party leader Edwin Poots yesterday ordered Northern Ireland Civil Service officials to halt border checks on goods entering from Great Britain via the Irish Sea, despite the terms of the Brexit-related protocol. However, the instruction does not have the backing of the DUP’s power-sharing partner Sinn Féin and has reportedly yet to be enacted.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said it was unacceptable for officials to be pulled in different directions by political masters and urged both the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK  government to intervene.

“Civil servants have an obligation to uphold the rule of law. In contentious areas of legal dispute such as this, ministers have an obligation to protect the political impartiality of the civil service, rather than upping the stakes for their own political agenda,” he said.

“Ministers should ensure that civil servants have clear, unambiguous advice to protect from the inevitable accusations of politicisation.

"The executive now needs to urgently ensure there is clarity over the legality of what civil servants are being asked to do.”

Penman also cautioned that Westminster could not pass off the dispute – which could lead to another suspension of power-sharing in Northern Ireland – as a local dispute.

“The UK government cannot be bystanders on an issue which is entirely of their own creation,” he said.

“Their refusal to become involved is a green light to those who are seeking to exploit this contentious issue for their own political gain.

“They must now act urgently to find a resolution to this crisis before it damages the impartiality of the civil service and the integrity of government in Northern Ireland."

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