Edwin Poots’s officials said public Irish Sea border stance differed from what they were told – and wanted it in writing

A civil servant felt deeply uncomfortable about a decision by Edwin Poots’s department to abandon the recruitment of Irish Sea border inspectors, saying that it did not reflect what they were verbally told, the News Letter can reveal.

Saturday, 22nd May 2021, 7:23 am
The DUP had said publicly that all recruitment had halted – but quietly within the department it was continuing. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty

On March 25 this newspaper revealed that just weeks after the DUP said it was blocking recruitment of Irish Sea border inspectors, DUP minister Edwin Poots’s department had advertised for port inspectors.

A month earlier the temporary DUP agriculture minister Gordon Lyons dramatically announced that he was halting work on Irish Sea border infrastructure and stopping the recruitment of staff to carry out checks.

However, after the revelation that the department had quietly U-turned, it said that the advert had “incorrectly specified” that the staff would be working on the sea border and said it would be halting the recruitment “until further notice”.

Now documents released by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) under the Freedom of Information Act show that a civil servant, whose name has been blacked out, raised concerns about what they were being asked to do in response to the News Letter revelation.

The official said on March 25 – the day of the story: “I’m going to raise the issue of uncertainty around this because I am confused now as what we are allowed to do.

“What has happened is not what was agreed/advised to me so I’m going to ask for something formally in writing.

“I think this is necessary to protect those of us who are working in this particular work area from accusations that we have been doing something incorrectly.”

Another civil servant, whose name has also been blacked out, replied to say that they agreed. The News Letter asked the department to explain what civil servants were told to do verbally – but not in writing – which left them feeling so uncomfortable.

Another document shows that chief vet Robert Huey approved the recruitment of port inspectors on 24 March – the day before the News Letter report. Dr Huey is one of the department’s most senior officials who would be in contact with the minister. DAERA was asked whether Dr Huey either withheld that information from the minister or if the minister did in fact have some knowledge that recruitment was continuing.

DAERA responded: “The minister has always been clear that recruitment of port staff should cease until further clarity is received from the UK Government and consideration is given to the requirements for NI Points of Entry by the Northern Ireland Executive.

“On March 25, the department clarified to the News Letter that an advertisement seeking to recruit agricultural inspectors, mistakenly specified that new staff would be solely located to the Points of Entry.

“The department also confirmed to the News Letter that the minister is not involved in routine recruitment and therefore was unaware of this advert being placed.”

The department was also asked if any official has been investigated or disciplined for disobeying the minister’s direction. There was no response.

Recruitment continued, despite DUP claim

Almost 100 pieces of internal departmental documentation released to the News letter give scant information about the DUP’s claimed halt to recruiting Irish Sea border staff having made any difference.

On February 26 the then minister, Gordon Lyons, announced: “I instructed my department to halt work on a range of issues relating to work at the ports. This is in and around a number of areas...[including] the additional recruitment of staff...”

Internal emails show that officials carried on work on recruitment for weeks.

On March 11, an official emailed what a recruitment agency in relation to “agency Veterinary Inspectors Larne Port”.

They said: “As advised there is an urgent need with this request and it gets more pressing with every day that goes by...As I say this is extremely urgent”. Another email said to “avoid delay” because “Larne Port is very short of veterinary resource”.

Another email on March 1, days after the apparent freeze on recruitment, asked an agency for Larne Port inspectors, saying “this is an urgent need”. Two days later they said: “I really need this progressed urgently”. Later that day an email said £240,000 had been cleared for recruiters Premiere Employment Group to fill the posts. Still more staff were being recruited for Warrenpoint Port as late as March 23.

DAERA said Mr Poots was unaware of all this activity.

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