Brexit checks on animal products and food at Northern Ireland’s largest ports have been suspended because of concern about threats to staff enforcing the protocol on the region’s trade with Great Britain.
The withdrawal of staff from the ports of Belfast and Larne comes amid local council anxiety about “sinister and menacing behaviour” and anti-protocol graffiti in some areas dominated by hardline pro-British unionists. The police said they had increased patrols at Larne port and other points of entry.
The protocol, which keeps Northern Ireland within the EU’s customs and single market regime, was introduced to maintain an open border with the Irish Republic after Brexit to protect the 1998 Good Friday peace pact. But all unionist parties opposed the protocol because they wanted Northern Ireland to leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK.
Edwin Poots, the region’s agriculture minister, said on Monday night that checks had been suspended, as he stood aside from his ministry to prepare for surgery to treat recently diagnosed cancer. “In consultation with my staff I have decided to withdraw staff from Belfast and Larne ports tonight,” he said on Twitter, adding that workers’ safety was paramount.
It was not clear from public statements whether the flow of shipments through the ports would continue in the absence of checks. P&O, owner of Larne port, had no comment when asked on Tuesday about the matter.
Mr Poots is a leading member of the anti-protocol Democratic Unionists led by Arlene Foster, first minister of the region’s devolved executive. The party complained of betrayal by Boris Johnson when the prime minister agreed to an “Irish Sea border” in 2019 to secure Brexit.
The party has intensified its demands on Mr Johnson to invoke special measures to override protocol provisions since a row last Friday when the European Commission briefly invoked the same measures to prevent coronavirus vaccine exports to Britain via Northern Ireland. The commission was forced to reverse that move, widely seen as a serious blunder, but it has emboldened unionist opposition to the protocol.
The suspension of checks came in the hours after an emergency meeting on Monday night of the local authority whose workers inspect food and animal products at Larne.
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council unanimously agreed to immediately withdraw staff from inspection duties because of concerns about their safety. The council had 12 environmental health officers working at the port and other senior staff.
“It follows an upsurge in sinister and menacing behaviour in recent weeks, including the appearance of graffiti within the local area referencing increasing tensions around the Northern Ireland protocol and describing port staff as ‘targets’,” the council said.
“Trade unions on behalf of council members of staff assisting with checks at the port have raised serious concerns around the safety of staff and have sought reassurance on what measures are in place to keep staff safe.”
The threats have been criticised across the political spectrum. Ian Paisley Jr, a DUP MP for north Antrim, said he condemned outright all threats to staff, saying “such tactics” had no place in a democracy.
“This is the sad reality of those who imposed terms on Northern Ireland without the consent of the delicate community balance which exists here. The protocol was bound to end in tears and here we have society’s structure falling apart.”
Philip McGuigan, a regional assembly member from the nationalist Sinn Féin party, said reports of threats were very concerning. “There can be no place for threats like this from criminal loyalist gangs and they should be lifted immediately.”
The Police Service of Northern Ireland said it planned a meeting on Tuesday with other public agencies to discuss the matter. “Where we have any credible information we will share that with our partners and take appropriate action,” said Mark McEwan, PSNI assistant chief constable.