Edwin Poots: Difficult for politicians to control level of unionist anger over NI Protocol

 Council staff at Larne Port were withdrawn from inspection duties
 Council staff at Larne Port were withdrawn from inspection duties

Outgoing Minister of Agriculture has appealed for calm heads after Brexit port checks were suspended over threatening loyalist behaviour.

Edwin Poots said there is anger 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.

Inspections at Larne and Belfast ports were suspended on Monday after sinister graffiti and reports of intelligence-gathering on inspectors carrying out the checks. The EU confirmed this morning that it was also withdrawing staff from the two ports.

Police in Northern Ireland will hold talks with inspection agencies later.

Mr Poots 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His officials are among those to be withdrawn.

The senior Democratic Unionist, who stepped down at midnight ahead of undergoing cancer surgery, added: “Ultimately the people who are doing their jobs, who are going to their work, are not their enemies.

“They are people who are simply carrying out a job, whether it is the Department of Agriculture, the local council or Food Standards Agency.”

He added: “Those people should be allowed to do their jobs in peace. Any threat against them should be withdrawn and allow people to carry on their duties.”

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the tensions are linked to potential curbs on British Army movements across the Irish Sea and follow withdrawn EU threats to restrict vaccine supplies.

European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said Brussels' officials were being temporarily withdrawn from duties at the ports.

"Obviously the security of our staff in Northern Ireland is as high a preoccupation as that of any other person working in Northern Ireland on the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement," he told reporters in Brussels.

"We have asked them not to attend their duties today and we will continue to monitor the situation and adapt accordingly."

British Cabinet minister Michael Gove, First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill and European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic are expected to take part in a video call tomorrow

Loyalists are angry at the imposition of a new economic border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The suspension move came as focus on the protocol 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.

Mr Poots’ Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) said yesterday that it had decided “in the interests of the wellbeing of staff to temporarily suspend physical inspections of products of animal origin at Larne and Belfast” pending further discussions with the PSNI.

A Daera spokesman said: “The situation will be kept under review and, in the meantime, full documentary checks will continue to be carried out as usual.”

Mr Poots said he had taken the decision to withdraw personnel at the ports in consultation with his staff.

He added: “The Protocol, as has been established, has made Great Britain a third country to Northern Ireland when we are all part of the sovereign UK.

“The EU laws that have been established to deal with materials coming in from third countries such as Brazil and Argentina is a totally disproportionate application to have that applied to Great Britain whenever Northern Ireland is part of the UK, remains part of the UK, but over 50% of our trade in foodstuffs is coming from Great Britain and the impact upon the people of Northern Ireland is immense.”

This morning the Executive released a joint statement condemned the threats.

"Regardless of our very different views on the Northern Ireland Protocol, the Executive is united in condemning any threats made against workers and staff going about their duties at Belfast and Larne ports," the ministers 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.

"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."

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan said force officials would meet partner agencies to discuss the situation.

“The safety of staff working at points of entry is of the utmost importance to us,” he said. “Where we have any credible information we will share that with our partners and take appropriate action.

“We have increased patrols at Larne Port and other points of entry in order to reassure staff and the local community.”

It came after council staff at Larne Port were withdrawn from inspection duties earlier yesterday.

Twelve Mid and East Antrim Borough Council staff assisting officials from Daera and UK Border Force with checks at the port were withdrawn from their duties with immediate effect on Monday.

The council said the decision was made following an “upsurge in sinister and menacing behaviour in recent weeks”.

Graffiti appeared in the area last month, referring to tensions about the Northern Ireland Protocol and describing port staff as “targets”.

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.

The council said the situation has caused “extreme distress and worry to staff” and it had “no option but to withdraw them from their duties in order to fulfil its duty of care and carry out a full risk assessment with the PSNI, Food Standards Agency and Daera”.

It apologised for any disruption but said “the safety and wellbeing of staff is of paramount importance”.

In addition to fears over graffiti, it is understood staff expressed concerns that individuals had been spotted taking down number plate details.

Mayor of Mid and East Antrim Peter Johnston said: “We have seen what I would describe as deeply

troubling graffiti and a very notable upping of community tensions towards the NI Protocol, particularly in recent days.

“The health and wellbeing of our staff is always this council’s number one priority and that is why the decision has been taken to withdraw them from their work at the port with immediate effect until we have very real assurances and full confidence that they can go about their duties without fear, threat or concern for their wellbeing.”

Sinn Féin councillor James McKeown said: “Our staff will step away from this work and will only return when we are totally satisfied it is safe and right for them to do so.

“There are simmering tensions within the local community at present and we will not stand by and let our staff be targeted when they are just doing their jobs.”

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.

The graffiti in Larne warning port staff
The graffiti in Larne warning port staff

The DUP has been vociferous in opposition to the protocol’s operation.

The party’s North Antrim MP, Ian Paisley, condemned the threats to staff but said the protocol was “bound to cause these problems”.

“Such tactics have no place in a democracy,” he said.

“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.

“When (former Irish premier) Leo Varadkar shamefully distributed copies of border posts being blown up in Newry 30 years ago around EU Commission members, he demonstrated that violence and the threat of violence has a seat at the table.

“At the heart of progress in Northern Ireland has been cross-community consent.

“Those who thought they could impose something against the will of every unionist are now reaping the seeds of division they have sown.

“The protocol was bound to cause these problems given the triumphant approach by republicans and nationalists and the wilful ignorance that 50% of the population was opposed to the protocol.

“It’s time for the Government to step up and invoke Article 16, set it aside and let’s get back to proper trade without restrictions.”