There is "absolutely no information" to substantiate or corroborate claims that loyalist paramilitary organisations are involved in threats or intimidation towards staff carrying out post-Brexit checks in the ports of Belfast or Larne, according to a senior police officer.
Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan said police were aware of a “single anonymous piece of information” which has been circulating and which has caused “real concern towards staff and their employers.”
He would not give any further details as to the nature of this piece of information, but said it was the police’s assessment that those responsible were “individuals or small groups.”
He also said there was no evidence to substantiate claims that information was being gathered about officials, such as the recording of car licence plates.
ACC McEwan said there was “considerable tension within the community ... the incidence of graffiti, social media commentary and other low-level incidents are indicators of that community tension so that does cause us concern.”
He called on “community leaders and those across the spectrum to urge calm and ask people to step back just at this point.”
He said police had a “very positive meeting” with Mid and East Antrim Borough Council and with the Department of Agriculture on Tuesday and would continue to engage with them and to share their security assessment.
It was the responsibility of employers, he said, to manage their staff’s return to work, but he said the police would “support them as best we can in terms of sharing our assessments of that information, providing crime prevention advice, providing the increase in patrolling to ensure that staff stay safe and supported.”
There has been a PSNI presence at ports throughout the Brexit transition period, he said, which was increased on Monday night and which will continue.
The European Commission told its officials working on post-Brexit customs arrangements at Northern Irish ports not to go to work on Tuesday due to concerns over their safety amid tensions over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“It is obvious for us that the first and utmost priority is the safety of people,” European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said.
“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.”
The move comes after Northern Ireland’s agriculture department suspended the animal-based food checks at Larne and Belfast ports that have taken place since special post-Brexit arrangements came into force at the start of the year.
Due to an “upsurge in sinister and menacing behaviour”, including graffiti in the local area identifying port staff as “targets”, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council decided to withdraw all council staff from Larne port, the council said in a statement.
According to loyalist sources, paramilitary groups are not responsible for the threats, which they said were the work of a few individuals.
The PSNI is to meet with Department of Agriculture officials and representatives from the council on Tuesday, and in the meantime has increased its patrols at the ports.
“Where we have any credible information we will share that with our partners and take appropriate action,” the police said.
The European Commission, meanwhile, condemned threats of violence as “unacceptable, full stop”.
“Of course we condemn very strongly any threat of violence against port officials or anybody else in Northern Ireland who are simply exercising their duties and implementing the withdrawal agreement,” Mr Mamer said.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin described developments at Belfast and Larne ports as “sinister and ugly”. Speaking to RTÉ news on Tuesday morning, Mr Martin said: “Very concerning news indeed, and I would condemn the intimidatory tactics against workers who should of course be allowed and facilitate in going about their daily work.
“It’s a very sinister and ugly development, and obviously we will be doing everything we possibly can to assist and to defuse the situation.”
The issue will be discussed in a video conference on Wednesday between the North’s First minister, Arlene Foster; Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill; the commission vice-president, Maroš Šefcovic; and British cabinet minister Michael Gove.
The commission is also in touch with UK authorities “from a security perspective”, Mr Mamer confirmed.
PSNI assistant chief constable Mark McEwan said increased patrols are being undertaken at Larne port and other ports in the North to “reassure staff and the local community”.
He said police in Northern Ireland will hold talks later today with partner agencies to discuss the issues.
Following the decision taken by councillors, the Minister for Agriculture, Edwin Poots, announced he would be withdrawing staff from the port of Belfast, as well as Larne, as their “safety remains paramount”.
Mrs Foster has condemned threats against inspection staff at Larne port, and she has called for the immediate removal of the Northern Ireland protocol. She said it is “utterly reprehensible” that anybody going to their place of work should be threatened in this way and said her thoughts are with those people.
Mrs Foster said she has expressed her concerns over rising tensions in the North over the use of the Northern Ireland protocol in an initial version of a European Union regulation.
Speaking on UTV’s The View from Stormont on Monday night, she said it is a “hugely concerning issue” and said she has been in touch with the British government on the matter.
In the Republic, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said on Monday morning that the Government condemns what he described as “the intimidation of staff” at the ports.
Such behaviour was “completely unacceptable”, he told RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland.
The North’s Department of Agriculture said on Tuesday morning that the situation was being kept under review pending discussions with the PSNI.
While physical inspections of Products of Animal Origin had been temporarily suspended at Larne and Belfast “in the interests of the wellbeing of staff”, a Department spokesman said, full documentary checks are continuing to be carried out as usual.
The deputy general secretary of the trade union NIPSA, Patrick Mulholland, who represents some of the workers at the port, said the employees were “in shock because they suddenly find themselves under a level of threat they would not expect to be under.”
He said they were “ordinary working people ... they then become very anxious because they do not know how this is going to work out and they do want the greatest possible level of support and assurance from their fellow workers and people in society that they have got their backs.”
“We do not want to see our members becoming a political football around the issue of the border, be it a land or a sea border,” he said.
In the North’s Assembly on Tuesday MLAs condemned the threats against workers at Larne and Belfast ports and called for “calm heads” to prevail.
They also condemned graffiti daubed on the offices of Alliance representatives including the MP Stephen Farry, and a threat the DUP MLA William Irwin said had been made against him.
The Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson, who raised the matter, said his appeal and his pledge was for “calm, cool, collected thoughts around this issue.
“We have seen over the last number of weeks, both in the public media and also in social media, a situation that has perhaps been described as being heated up. What I want to do today is to hear this Assembly cooling all of that rhetoric, allowing that people are allowed to go about their daily duties.”
The DUP MLA William Irwin said there was an “important and very real issue within the unionist community at this time, and that is the absolute rejection of the Northern Ireland protocol”, which was viewed in the unionist community as “completely negative and distasteful.
“Sadly, at the fringes of the community there are those, as we know from many years of troubled history in Northern Ireland, who will use those opportunities to flex their muscles.”
He said he urged unionism to “unite and deal with the protocol in an exclusively peaceful and democratic fashion.”
Responding, the Sinn Féin MLA Linda Dillon said “the source of the problem is Brexit, the Brexit that you argued for, the Brexit that you wanted, the Brexit that you paid millions of pounds to campaign for here in the North.”
She said Assembly members “need to have cool heads, we need to temper our language, we need to know that the tone we set in this place is what will happen outside.
“For us not to take responsibility, and full responsibility for that, is disingenuous,” she said. “What we say and do in here will have a massive impact on what happens out there.”
The Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs pointed out that there had already been adjustment to the protocol, and said there need to be “a clear reflection on those protocols and we need to make sure that they are proportionate and reasonable.
“What has been introduced is not proportionate or reasonable ... there is growing discontent within the unionist community and I can only see that growing.”
The SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone said those responsible for the threats and for behaviour such as collecting car numberplates should be identified and brought before the courts.
“The duties of all of us is to bring it down, to calm the situation down, to identify what the issues are and to address those issues in a collective, calm way ... and bring about not a spirit of division, but a spirit of accommodation and reconciliation.”
Separately, Mr Poots has stepped down from his role to undergo surgery for cancer. Gordon Lyons is taking over the role with Foyle MLA Gary Middleton promoted to junior minister. - Additional reporting PA