NI unions left with unanswered questions on withdrawal of port staff

‘I think we’re all wanting to get to the bottom of this,’ says official with port workers union

A senior trade union official has said questions remain to be answered about the decision-making process which led to the withdrawal of staff conducting post-Brexit checks on goods at Larne and Belfast ports.

Alan Law of Nipsa, which represents some of the port employees, told The Irish Times all unions involved had "concerns about how this process unravelled. I think we're all wanting to get to the bottom of this . . . to ensure that decisions that are taken of this nature are done so properly."

Sinn Féin Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) John O'Dowd also said issues including concerns about confidential emails "raise many questions that need to be answered". And he called on Mid- and East Antrim Borough Council, the Minister for Agriculture and the DUP "to provide a full and accurate account of exactly what happened as a matter of urgency".

Physical checks on goods of animal origin arriving from Britain resumed on Wednesday after the North's Department of Agriculture agreed staff could return. This followed a full threat assessment from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and its own internal risk assessment, as well as liaison with staff and unions.


Staff employed by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council at Larne returned to work on Friday.

They were withdrawn from duty on February 1st following what the council described as concerns over "sinister and menacing behaviour". This included the appearance of graffiti referencing tensions around the Northern Ireland protocol and describing port staff as "targets".

Department staff were withdrawn from work that night on the order of the then DUP minister for agriculture Edwin Poots.

However the PSNI has consistently said there was no evidence of credible threats.

In its statement of February 1st, the council said trade unions had “raised serious concerns around the safety of staff” and had warned staff number plates were being recorded. “We simply have found no evidence from anyone [as to] where that came from,” said Mr Law.

“They have attributed a lot of the decision-making to communication that came from the unions which didn’t come from the unions,” he said. “It’s proven to be very, very difficult to get down to the exact rationale for much of what’s happened here.”

Ictu assistant general secretary Owen Reidy said the unions had "acted reasonably and quickly in the interest of their people, and I think Mid and East Antrim Council need to account for themselves."

He said any issues around the protocol needed to be “worked out by the political parties and the governments and the EU through politics and diplomacy, as opposed to threats and boycotts.”

A spokeswoman for Mid- and East Antrim Borough Council said its “threshold for risk when it comes to our staff is very low, and the health, safety and well-being of our workers remains our top priority.”

Threat assessment

She said the mayor had been made aware of “correspondence to the council’s HR department from a major trade union setting out their concerns”. And the mayor reflected these “and highlighted some of the alleged activity which had been reported to council, from several stakeholders”.

It was on this basis councillors agreed unanimously to withdraw staff, who returned on February 5th following a threat assessment by the PSNI and an internal risk assessment.

“This remains under review by Council in partnership with the PSNI and in correspondence with the trade unions,” said the spokeswoman.

Mid- and East Antrim Alliance party Cllr Danny Donnelly told the BBC there had been "conflicting statements" in the aftermath of the withdrawal of port staff. And he was "surprised to hear a few days later the PSNI saying there was no credible threat".

He said councillors felt they had not been given enough information before the decision to withdraw the staff was made.

Additional reporting – PA

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times