Northern Ireland news

Mid and East Antrim mayor feels ‘badly let down by PSNI'

Vehicles leave the port of Larne in Co Antrim. Picture by Peter Morrison, Associated Press
Rebecca Black, PA

The mayor of Mid and East Antrim said he feels “badly let down” by police in events around the withdrawal of staff from post-Brexit checks at Larne Port.

Peter Johnston said council chief executive Anne Donaghy “almost had to chase to the chief constable’s office with a begging bowl” for a threat assessment.

“On one hand we are given this impression there is no threat, everything is fine, but on the other hand we had almost 3,000 additional police hours put down to Larne Port, we even had armed response units down at the port… some residents said they hadn’t seen as much police presence since the days of the Troubles,” he told a Stormont committee.

“We as an organisation had to act quickly, had to take the decision fast, and I think there are still questions to be answered as to why it took so long for the threat assessment to come back.

“Throughout this whole episode we have been badly let down by the PSNI, and I don’t say those words lightly.

“Given the severity of this situation, the level of communication and the lack of transparency has been truly disappointing.”

Mr Johnston and Ms Donaghy both stood by the decision to withdraw staff on February 1, pointing out the Department of Agriculture did too, describing their priority as being staff safety.

Mr Johnston said 12 members of staff “have been left seriously emotionally traumatised by this whole ordeal”.

The Stormont agriculture committee has been examining the decision by the council to temporarily withdrawn staff from February 1.

It came amid tension among unionists and loyalists at additional checks on goods arriving into ports from Great Britain as part of the Brexit protocol.

The decision to withdrawn staff sparked a row with some political parties questioning the veracity of the threat level against port staff.

Sinn Fein MLA Philip McGuigan questioned the pair at length.

He said it “jumped out at him” that “senior staff within Mid and East Antrim Council didn’t believe or trust the PSNI”.

Ms Donaghy responded: “My duty as an officer here is to protect my staff along with the mayor and councillors.”

DUP MLA William Irwin claimed the committee probe has been a “witch hunt” that was “haranguing a chief executive and a mayor over a sensible decision taken for the safety of their own staff”.

Committee chairman Declan McAleer denied this, saying the incident is “of major public interest” and he has tried to give every member their say.

In his opening remarks, Mr Johnston described the withdrawal of “12 young staff members” as “erring on the side of caution”.

“As mayor, I am confident that by the end of today’s session the committee will have absolutely no doubt that the course of action taken by council was the only course of action that should have been taken,” he told MLAs.

He said parties across the council unanimously agreed to temporarily withdraw staff pending formal written threat assessment from police.

Mr Johnston said he was “extremely disappointed” that the move was “shamefully mistreated, manipulated and exploited as a political football by certain parties”.

“The same course of action was taken independently by both DAERA (Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs) and the EU inspectorate, who both stood down their staff at the ports on February 1 as well,” he said.

Mr Johnston also said he was “bitterly disappointed by the very apparent discrepancy and delay in the information being provided by the PSNI”.

He took issue with some of the evidence given to the committee by assistant chief constable Bobby Singleton last week.

“The temporary assistant chief constable said that to his knowledge there had been no contact between Mid and East Antrim Borough Council and the PSNI between January 21 to February 1. Completely contrary to this, however, you’ll find in the council’s written evidence a detailed log of no less than eight engagements between council and PSNI during this period,” he told MLAs.

Ms Donaghy told MLAs of multiple incidents of “sinister and threatening graffiti” from mid-January which included the message that “all border post staff are targets”.

“There was increasing information from political representatives, contacts at grassroots and staff that suggested tensions were rising, this included reports that Crimestoppers had been informed of a number of individuals at the port were being targeted,” she said.

Ms Donaghy said there was a report that a DAERA staff member had been followed home from work and sinister graffiti had appeared near their home.

She also said there were reports from staff of “intimidating behaviour at the ports, including an increase in stationary and slowing vehicles observed at the port and the suspected recording of car number plates details”.

A PSNI spokesperson said they are aware of the comments made by the council representatives at the committee meeting.

Mr Singleton added: "keeping people safe is the PSNI's priority and the safety of staff working at points of entry is and has always been of the utmost importance to us".

"Throughout this period we have been consistent in our commitment to work closely with partner agencies at a range of levels to support them and their staff," he said.

"It's disappointing to learn that these key partners felt let down. Our assessment of the threat in Larne was, we felt, consistently made clear to our partners; namely there was no information to substantiate or corroborate claims of paramilitary involvement in making anonymous threats.

"We did increase the number of high visibility patrols across Larne and at other points of entry to provide reassurance to staff and the local community.

"Where we have any credible information about a threat we will of course share that with our partners at the earliest opportunity and take appropriate action.

"Should the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs have any further questions for PSNI I will be happy to answer them."

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