The UK has published legislation allowing Whitehall to bring forward the completion of border control posts at Northern Ireland ports, an issue shrouded in controversy due to unionist opposition to such controls, which are a requirement of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The legislation permits Whitehall officials to expedite completion of infrastructure for agrifood checks at the ports despite the issue being a devolved matter normally handled by the Northern Ireland civil service.

RTÉ News understands that UK officials have told the European Commission that the legislation reflected the absence of a functioning Northern Ireland executive.

Under the Northern Ireland Protocol, so-called border control posts, or points of entry, were supposed to be built at ports and run by officials from the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture, or DAERA.

These were to be responsible for carrying out EU animal health and food safety checks on agrifood products entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

However, the construction of the facilities fell behind schedule, and Edwin Poots, the former DUP agriculture minister, ordered agrifood checks at the ports to be stopped in February of last year, a move which a Belfast court in December said was illegal.

On 28 December, the UK minister for biosecurity Richard Benyon wrote to a House of Lords committee to say that because there was no functioning executive in Northern Ireland, work on the border control posts would now be brought forward by Whitehall officials from the UK's Department of Agriculture (Defra).

He said Defra would introduce a statutory instrument to allow the construction to advance, while acknowledging that it was the responsibility of the Northern Ireland department of agriculture to operate the border control posts and to ensure they were properly staffed.

Richard Benyon (L) said the completion of border control posts was essential

Mr Benyon wrote: "In the event that the Northern Ireland Executive is restored, our intention would be to engage on the scope for returning responsibilities back to the Executive where there was agreement to this."

The letter made clear that the completion of border control posts was essential even if the UK government pressed ahead with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which dismantles large swathes of the Protocol.

A key component of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is the creation of virtual Red and Green lanes which would differentiate goods destined to stay and be consumed in Northern Ireland from those (using the Red lane) that were liable to cross the border into the south.

Mr Benyon wrote that the Red lane would still apply EU animal health and food safety rules and as such the border control posts would have to be completed and staffed.

"The [UK] government's position has always been that the arrangements in place for the red lane will require the enhancement of existing [sanitary and phytosanitary] SPS facilities at points of entry in Northern Ireland.

"The necessary construction has not taken place to date owing to wider concerns about the protocol's implementation. However, acting to deliver these facilities is pivotal to securing a viable and sustainable way forward on the protocol in relation to EU-destined goods."

EU and UK officials have been locked in technical discussions over ways to make the Northern Ireland Protocol less cumbersome.

Latest Brexit stories

While the EU has expressed strong reservations about the Red and Green lane approach, it has spoken of creating an express lane for trusted traders moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

It is understood officials are trying to bridge the gap between both positions.

EU officials believe that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which member states have strongly condemned, has been tacitly paused in the House of Lords as negotiations intensify.

This week both sides announced they had reached agreement on access to UK trade data by EU officials, seen as a key breakthrough in the talks.