Stormont ministers unite to call for threats against port checks workers to end
By Michael McHugh, David Young and Michelle Devane, PA
Stormont ministers have united to appeal for threats against workers conducting Brexit port checks to be lifted.
Inspections at Larne and Belfast ports were suspended on Monday after sinister graffiti and reports of intelligence-gathering on inspectors and police stepped up patrols.
Lorries arriving at new inspection facilities at Belfast Port on Tuesday morning were turned around and redirected by Border Force officials.
The parties in Belfast are sharply divided on EU withdrawal and the Northern Ireland Protocol which keeps the land border in Ireland open but imposes controls on the Irish Sea.
In a joint Stormont executive statement, they said: “As public servants, these staff should be allowed to do their jobs without fear and it is unacceptable and intolerable that threats have been made.”
Loyalists are angry at the imposition of a new economic border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The ministerial statement added: “The threats should be lifted immediately and staff should be allowed to return to their posts and get back to their work.
“There is no place in society for intimidation and threats against anyone going to their place of work.”
Outgoing Democratic Unionist Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme of ire in the unionist community over new “disproportionate” Irish Sea regulatory and customs checks required under the terms of the divorce deal’s Northern Ireland Protocol.
He said: “It is difficult for politicians to (control) the level of anger that is in the community in respect of this and it is a time for calm heads and a time for wise behaviour, but these things have certainly created a lot of tension in the community.”
His officials and local council workers were among those to be withdrawn.
There is no indication at this stage whether the threat is coming from an organised paramilitary source, rather than an individual or individuals.
Police in Northern Ireland will hold talks with inspection agencies later.
Officers have increased patrols at Larne Port and other points of entry to reassure staff and the local community.
Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin told RTE the ports safety concern is a sinister development.
He said: “I would condemn the intimidatory tactics against workers who should, of course, be allowed and facilitated in going about their daily work.
“It’s a very sinister and ugly development.
“Obviously, we will be doing everything we possibly can to assist and to defuse the situation.”
Twelve Mid and East Antrim Borough Council staff assisting officials from Daera and UK Border Force with checks at Larne Port were withdrawn from their duties with immediate effect on Monday.
The council said it followed an “upsurge in sinister and menacing behaviour in recent weeks”.
Unionists have urged the British Government to over-ride parts of the Protocol which they fear endangers trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, its biggest market and supplier of goods.
Nationalists do not support disruption on the Irish Sea but are adamant the open Irish land border must be protected by including Northern Ireland in the EU’s trading regulations.
Graffiti appeared last month, referring to tensions about the Northern Ireland Protocol and describing port staff as “targets”.
Focus on the protocol has intensified following Friday’s ill-fated move by the EU to suspend aspects of its operation amid the furore over vaccine supply in the bloc.
The European Commission swiftly backtracked after facing intense criticism for attempting to hinder the free flow of movement across the Irish border in respect of vaccines.
There have also been a number of daubings in Belfast amid anger at the protocol, with a raft of new checks on goods arriving at ports from Great Britain introduced at the start of the year.
In addition to fears over graffiti, it is understood staff expressed concerns that individuals had been spotted taking down number plate details.
Police last month warned that discontent in loyalist communities was “growing” over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is designed to allow the country to follow the EU’s customs rules and has caused delays at ports because of new declarations and checks, but said their feedback was not causing significant concern.