Poots ordered port staff withdrawal as unconvinced PSNI understood risk - official
North’s Chief Constable says it is ‘time for wise words and calm heads’
Graffiti on a building reads “No Irish Sea border” in the Sandy Row area in Belfast. Photographer: Paul Faith/Bloomberg
Department of Agriculture staff at the ports of Larne and Belfast were stood down from duty on the order of Minister for Agriculture Edwin Poots who was “not convinced the PSNI had a full understanding of the risk”, according to the Department’s most senior civil servant.
Derek McMahon said Mr Poots told him he was “very concerned about the risks posed to staff” and “emphasised the duty of care of officials for their staff and noted that Mid and East Antrim [Borough] Council were already taking action.”
“As Minister he was clear in demanding that action needed to be taken to protect staff,” Mr McMahon said.
The police has stood by its assessment that individuals or small groups, not loyalist paramilitaries, were responsible. The North’s Chief Constable on Thursday warned of a “febrile” atmosphere and said it was “time for wise words and calm heads”.
“We need to work together to look at a route map to normality because that seems to be the opportunity before us, to step back from the brink in terms of community tension,” he said.
That call was echoed by Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Arlene Foster, who said it was “incredibly important” that people “stay calm and that they focus their energies on constitutional politics and take things forward in that fashion.
“I know people are very frustrated, but they need to channel that frustration through constitutional politics so that we can effect change in that fashion.”
Further discussions are to take place between the UK and the EU next week aimed at finding solutions to disruption to trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, and the Taoiseach is expected to speak to Ms Foster and the Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, on Friday.
Scrap the protocol
Speaking to reporters following a meeting of the North’s Executive on Thursday, Ms Foster emphasised her view that the best way to address the issue was to “scrap the protocol” and “to have a much better understanding as to how we can help protect the single market of the European Union through the assessment of risk, instead of trying to separate parts of the United Kingdom. ”
On Monday Departmental officials were withdrawn from both ports and post-Brexit physical checks on goods suspended. It followed a unanimous decision by after councillors on Mid and East Antrim Borough Council to remove its employees from Larne over concerns for their safety.
These were based on graffiti referencing increasing tensions around the Northern Ireland protocol and referring to staff as “targets”, as well as claims car licence plates were being recorded.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) subsequently said there was “absolutely no information” to substantiate claims that loyalist paramilitary organisations were involved. Belfast City Council employees were not withdrawn.
The Sinn Féin MLA Philip McGuigan questioned why the withdrawal decision had been taken if the police were not warning of increased risk, and said the decision-making process appeared to have been “heavily influenced and driven by the minister”.
Both the Department and the Council were awaiting on Thursday a formal threat assessment from the PSNI, which will be used to inform their own risk assessments.
The North’s Chief Vet, Dr Robert Huey told the Stormont Agriculture Committee on Thursday checks on live animals and some plants were still taking place and only inspections on animal-based produce were was affected by the suspension.
This, he said, was sustainable for a number of weeks but not any longer, and warned the EU could potentially take legal action if the situation continued indefinitely.
Also appearing before the Committee on Thursday, Mr McMahon outlined the sequence of events leading up to the decision to withdraw staff.
He said graffiti threatening port staff in Larne first appeared on January 21st, and this was discussed at a meeting on January 28th when it was raised by a local government representative.
Dr Huey, who was at the meeting, told the Committee that he had “made the comment about the graffiti to members of the council that were there and that the police had been reassuring that it wasn’t a serious threat.
Mr McMahon said that on January 31st the then Minister, Mr Poots - who has since been temporarily replaced by his DUP colleague, Gordon Lyons, while he undergoes cancer surgery - contacted him to express his concern about the safety of staff at points of entry.
The day after, February 1st, Mr Poots contacted him again to state he was “formally registering his concerns about the health, safety and security of DAERA staff working at border points of entry.”
After this Mr McMahon spoke to a senior PSNI officer who said he would share a formal threat assessment following a meeting of stakeholders which was being arranged for the next day, and which Mr McMahon agreed to attend. The officer’s assessment of the level of threat “had not changed significantly from the previous week,” Mr McMahon said.
Following another meeting that day when there was “feedback from councillors and young staff feeling threatened”, primarily in Larne, the Minister contacted Mr McMahon to request staff be withdrawn.
“That’s a unique situation, I have to say, when you’re getting that sort of feedback,” Mr McMahon said.