Brexit checks at Northern Ireland ports suspended after threats to staff

Brexit tensions in Northern Ireland have escalated sharply, as checks on animal products and food arriving from Great Britain at the region’s largest ports were suspended following threats made to staff enforcing new trade rules.

The withdrawal of staff from the ports of Belfast and Larne comes amid local council anxiety about “sinister and menacing behaviour” and graffiti attacking the so-called Northern Ireland protocol in some areas dominated by hardline pro-British unionists.

The protocol, which keeps Northern Ireland within the EU’s customs regime and single market for goods, was introduced to maintain an open border with the Irish Republic after Brexit to protect the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

But it is bitterly opposed by all unionist parties, which wanted Northern Ireland to leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK, and its operation has become highly political.

Last Friday Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s first minister, described as “incredibly hostile” a move by the European Commission to invoke an emergency clause in the protocol to stop vaccines crossing from the EU into the region. The policy was abandoned within hours.

On Tuesday Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, urged all sides to work “calmly” to defuse tensions around the protocol and described as “despicable” threats to port officials in the region.

Mr Gove will meet Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission’s vice-president, with Mrs Foster and Michelle O’Neill, deputy first minister, on Wednesday to discuss the escalating tensions.

“In the short term there are a number of issues which I would not describe as teething problems — they are significant issues which bear on the lives of people in Northern Ireland, which do need to be resolved,” Mr Gove said.

Mr Gove wants to extend “grace periods” covering the transport of parcels and certain goods, including chilled meat, and to address problems over the trade of items such as seeds and the movement of pets.

Although the protocol was agreed by UK prime minister Boris Johnson as the price of his Brexit deal, Tory Eurosceptics railed against it in the House of Commons. “The protocol is not working,” said former Tory leader and pro-Brexit MP Iain Duncan Smith.

Port staff in Northern Ireland have expressed anxiety about suspicious activity around their workplace, including apparent attempts by people to take down car registration numbers. The police said they had increased patrols at Larne port and other points of entry.

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 five-party Northern Ireland executive led by the DUP and Sinn Féin Irish nationalists called for the threats to be lifted, saying staff should be allowed to return to their posts to work.

Micheál Martin, Irish premier, said in Dublin that the threats were a “very sinister and ugly development”. 

Eric Mamer, spokesman for the commission in Brussels, condemned all threats of violence and the security of staff was of utmost concern. He dismissed the notion that the commission’s attempt to override the protocol prompted an escalation of threats.

The European Commission also said it too had told EU staff at the ports “not to attend their duties” on Tuesday, saying it “will continue to monitor and adapt accordingly”. Despite the suspension of checks, shipments continued to flow through Belfast on Tuesday. P&O, which owns Larne port, gave no comment when asked if shipments there had been stopped.

The DUP has intensified its demands on Mr Johnson to invoke special measures to override protocol provisions since the row last Friday with the European Commission. Mr Gove said the move by Brussels had been “a serious mistake”.

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