Some officials withdrawn from post-Brexit inspections return to work at Larne
Council, department and EU officials had been removed from duties amid safety concerns
A view of the port of Larne on Thursday. Photograph: Paul Faith/Bloomberg
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council has said its staff would return to their work at Irish Sea trade check facilities on Friday evening following the completion of a threat assessment by the PSNI and its own subsequent risk assessment.
“The health and safety of our staff remains our top priority,” said a council spokesman.
Inspectors employed by Stormont’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs were also withdrawn from duties on Monday evening amid the safety concerns. That move impacted both Larne and Belfast ports.
The department had not yet made a decision on their return on Friday evening.
A department spokeswoman said: “The department has received the findings of the formal threat assessment from the PSNI and is currently considering it alongside its own internal risk assessment.
“Any decision to recommence full checks will be informed by both documents.”
EU officials overseeing the implementation of the new checks were also withdrawn from duties on Monday.
The inspections on animal-based produce arriving from Britain, which are required under the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the EU-UK withdrawal agreement, were suspended at Belfast and Larne ports on Monday after menacing graffiti appeared.
Police blamed the graffiti and menacing online comments on disgruntled individuals and small groups and have made clear there is no evidence of wider paramilitary involvement in threats.
The council workers’ return to duties was announced as the European Commission said it was exploring all “flexibilities” available within the framework of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Commission president Ursula von der Leyen recognised particular concern in the North in relation to the health certification of imported food products.
The DUP has vowed to scrap the Northern Ireland Protocol, which keeps the Irish land Border open since it means the North follows certain EU regulations, following disruption to some supplies from the rest of the UK earlier this year.
Unionists and loyalists believe Northern Ireland’s position within the UK has been undermined by the new trading arrangements arising from the protocol.
Ms von der Leyen told Northern Ireland Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey: “I can assure you that the [European] Commission has been exploring all flexibilities available under the applicable rules of [European] Union law and within the framework of the protocol, in order to facilitate the implementation of the protocol, whilst fully protecting the integrity of the [European] Union’s single market and customs union.”
Stormont’s First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster has said unionist frustrations at the post-Brexit trade border on the Irish Sea must be channelled through constitutional means.
Ms Foster’s sentiment was echoed by Taoiseach Micheál Martin, who has said parties needed to “dial down the rhetoric” over the protocol amid rising tensions.
PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne has also warned of a “febrile” atmosphere.
On Friday, Ms Foster welcomed the fact more than 100,000 people had signed her petition to the UK parliament calling for unfettered trade between the North and the rest of the UK.
She added: “We have made the case to the prime minister and now the people have made a very public appeal to the government of their country to act.
“This is not the time for more words and drawn-out processes.
“This is time for affirmative action to ensure that there is an unfettered flow of goods within the UK single market.”
Sinn Féin’s Caoimhe Archibald welcomed the commission president’s commitment.
She said: “This shows that the EU is willing to work on practical solutions to the remaining problems which have resulted from Brexit and our exit from the EU.
“We call on the British government to show the same resolve by committing to proper solutions to the practical issues.” – PA