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A P&O worker closes the gate on the European Causeway ferry from Scotland in the port of Larne, Northern Ireland.
A P&O worker closes the gate on the European Causeway ferry from Scotland in the port of Larne, Northern Ireland.
Image: Peter Morrison

No paramilitary involvement in threats to port workers, says PSNI

The EU asked its officials in Northern Ireland not to go to work and condemned ‘any threats’ to port staff
Feb 2nd 2021, 12:06 PM 42,119 55

Updated Feb 2nd 2021, 8:13 PM

POLICE IN NORTHERN Ireland have said there is no evidence of loyalist paramilitaries being involved in threats made to workers conducting post-Brexit trade checks at Northern Ireland’s ports.

The European Commission earlier announced that its officials were being temporarily withdrawn from duties in NI, after the North’s Department of Agriculture temporarily suspended the need for post-Brexit checks at Belfast Port and Larne Port “in the interest of the wellbeing of staff“.

Police in Northern Ireland had raised concerns about messages on social media and graffiti that suggested opposition to post-Brexit checks.

In an update this evening, assistant chief constable Mark McEwan said the PSNI has no information to substantiate or corroborate an “anonymous piece of information claiming paramilitary involvement in threats”. 

McEwan said he was concerned about signs of tension within the local community, adding that investigations into graffiti at various sites and other forms of intimidation on social media are ongoing.

The PSNI also increased patrols at the points of entry in order to “reassure” staff and the local community.

Three MLAs condemned any threatening behaviour or messages to Port staff at a Seanad committee today, and called on their unionist colleagues to play a greater role in diffusing any tensions so that staff could return back to work.

Speaking to reporters in Brussels, Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said today: “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.”

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

Mamer added: “We condemn very strongly any threats of violence against port officials or anybody else in Northern Ireland who are simply exercising their duties and implementing the Withdrawal Agreement. That must be absolutely clear.

Therefore, in such circumstances, we understand indeed that decisions have been taken by the Northern Irish authorities to temporarily suspend a number of checks that are foreseen for the transfer of goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.

“It is obvious for us that the first and utmost priority is the safety of people.”

Brussels has been in contact with the UK authorities “both from a security perspective and from the perspective of the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement”.

Senior figures from Brussels, Westminster and Stormont will discuss the situation in Northern Ireland’s ports tomorrow, the European Commission said.

UK Cabinet minister Michael Gove, Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič will take part in the video conference.

Graffiti and social media

The PSNI last week warned that graffiti and social media posts had indicated some dissatisfaction with post-Brexit checks imposed in Northern Ireland since 1 January.

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

This morning, graffiti was sprayed on at least two Alliance Party offices, one of which said “RIP GFA” and the other said “Stay out”. 

“We’re serving the community, seeking solutions to the problems others caused. We will not be deflected from that by bomb hoaxes and graffiti,” Alliance leader Naomi Long said.

“Port workers must return to work free from threats or intimidation,” Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said. “This is non-negotiable. That is the strong message from the Northern Executive and from political leaders across Ireland.”

‘It’s not the Protocol causing problems – it’s Brexit’

It comes as a number of Senators and MLAs condemned any possible threats made to staff at the North’s ports.

The Seanad Special Select Committee on Brexit and the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Committee for the Executive Office met today to discuss the island of Ireland’s response to adapting checks introduced because of Brexit changes.

Reacting to the news today of the withdrawal of some staff from ports in Northern Ireland, SDLP MLA and Chair of the Executive Office Committee Colin McGrath said that threats are counter productive, as the new post-Brexit checks weren’t going to change, and staff needed to be on site at ports to get “the practicalities sorted out”.

Colin McGrath Source: Oireachtas

“It’s not the Protocol causing these problems – it’s Brexit,” McGrath said, adding that “there will be difficulties for a year” in adjusting to post-Brexit changes.

“There is always a difficulty here in Northern Ireland that any issue that we take instantly comes green or orange, and it becomes one side of the community or the other.”

He said there needs to be a collective approach to this, as “the bottom line is the sale of a potato or a pencil”, and it doesn’t matter who it’s being sold to.

‘The Protocol is being targeted’

The Northern Ireland Protocol came into effect on 1 January, when the Brexit transition period ended and Britain’s 2016 vote to split from the EU came into full effect. It is designed to prevent a hard border emerging between the north and EU member Ireland

Three representatives of the committee attended the Seanad committee today – two from Sinn Féin and one from the SDLP. McGrath said he would work to see that unionist members of the committee attend any future committee meetings with the Oireachtas.

Sinn Féin MLA for Foyle Martina Anderson said that the PSNI didn’t confirm that the graffiti threats to port staff was from loyalists. 

“The Protocol is being targeted,” Anderson said. “These threats need to be removed, if people are taking car registration numbers, people need to be arrested.”

Emma Sheerin, Sinn Féin MLA for mid-Ulster, said that political unionists needed to show leadership amid these threats. 

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“There is no threat to their identity or to where they call home,” she said.

McGrath said: “If some politicians constantly [insert] culture into those issues, then we live in a very dangerous territory. Because once you start to threaten a person’s culture or identity, then they will react in a particular way.”

“It’s when we get everything tangled that we get ourselves tied in knots and confused.”

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said EU moves last week to restrict vaccine exports to the UK province, amid controversy over jab deliveries but which were swiftly abandoned, had “undermined” its special post-Brexit arrangements and “provoked concern”. 

“What is needed is urgent action from the EU to resolve outstanding problems with Protocol implementation,” he said on Twitter, while reiterating “Northern Ireland’s place in the UK will be protected and strengthened”.

The DUP announced this evening that it is to launch a co-ordinated bid to undermine the Northern Ireland Protocol in Belfast and London.

That includes an online petition calling for the UK Government to remove barriers to unfettered trade and opposing protocol-related legislation in the Stormont Assembly.

The party promised to work with other unionists to send a united message to London, Brussels and Dublin that Northern Ireland must be freed from the post-Brexit arrangement and its problems.

It also said it will:

  • Not participate in any north/south political engagement on issues related to the protocol.
  • Strive for a united unionist message demanding scrapping of the arrangements.
  • Attempt to build support for the anti-protocol position at Westminster.
  • Launch a parliamentary e-petition with the ambition of securing enough signatures to force a debate on the issue.

It said: “The Government needs to be bold and be prepared to act to bring about outcomes that underpin Northern Ireland’s full place in the most important internal market for us – that of the UK.

“The Prime Minister must now directly address the people of Northern Ireland on the growing crisis arising from the protocol.”

Reacting to the announcement, Sinn Féin said the DUP’s position was “reckless” and not driven by the best interests of the people of the north. 

Urging the DUP to “pull back”, Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald said: “Now is the time for calm leadership and solutions to deal with the disruption which has arisen as a result of Brexit.

“The Irish Protocol allows businesses in the north to export to Britain and the EU seamlessly, something that is of huge benefit to the north. It is critical that it is not unpicked and undermined after five weeks in operation.”

 

With reporting from Adam Daly and the Press Association.

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