Tempers fray in Northern Ireland over thorny Brexit protocol

What is happening with Northern Ireland’s ports and how is this linked to Brexit?

Brexit-related customs checks at the ports of Larne and Belfast have been temporarily suspended because of threats to workers.

Staff were withdrawn due to safety concerns following threats linked to tensions over the Northern Ireland protocol.

These included 12 environmental health officers and several senior council officers employed by Mid- and East Antrim Borough Council at Larne, as well as Department of Agriculture officials at both ports and staff employed by the European Commission, who were told not to attend work on Tuesday.

The council's decision was based on an "upsurge in sinister and menacing behaviour" which included "graffiti within the local area referencing increasing tensions around the Northern Ireland protocol and describing port staff as 'targets' ", and the gathering of information, such as car licence plates, belonging to employees.


However, the police assessment on Tuesday was that there was “absolutely no information to substantiate or corroborate the claims made that paramilitary organisations are involved [in] or behind threats or intimidation to staff”.

Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan said those responsible were "individuals or small groups". He added that police were concerned at "considerable tension" within the loyalist community, citing "the incidence of graffiti, social media commentary and other low-level incidents."

A loyalist source also told The Irish Times that paramilitary groups were not responsible for the threats, which were the work of a few individuals, and described similar tensions in the loyalist community over the Northern Ireland protocol.

Unionists and loyalists are opposed to the protocol because it places a custom and regulatory line in the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

They want the protocol removed and unionist parties have called for the UK government to invoke article 16 to address the disruption to trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. However, nationalist parties and Alliance say the issue is not the protocol, but Brexit – which the DUP supported – and the way to address these “teething problems” is through negotiation.

In order to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland the North remains part of the EU single market for goods, and must therefore apply EU customs rules at its ports and airports.

Customs declarations and additional checks, particularly for agri-food products, are now required for goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain, and are carried out at Border Control Posts at ports, including Belfast and Larne.

Some temporary “grace periods” have been agreed which are intended to ease the transition in its initial months, but there have still been difficulties and delays with the deliveries of some food and other goods. Some items such as seeds and plants can no longer be sent to Northern Ireland from Great Britain, and some firms have stopped delivering to the North.

‘Back door’

Tensions over the protocol were intensified when the European Commission on Friday announced and then reversed plans on Friday to itself trigger article 16 to prevent vaccines being shipped from the EU to Great Britain via the “back door” of Northern Ireland.

DUP leader Arlene Foster characterised it as "absolutely an act of hostility" and subsequently called on British prime minister Boris Johnson to intervene, telling the BBC it was a "a dereliction of duty . . . to stand by and allow United Kingdom citizens to suffer."

In the North's Assembly the TUV [Traditional Unionist Voice] leader, Jim Allister, described how "our trade is being strangled, our east-west relationships have been emasculated, our consumers are being starved of supplies . . . if ever there was a wake-up call to recognise the malevolent and iniquitous intent of the protocol this is it."

Now the call is for "calm heads" to prevail. The situation has been "heated up", said Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson. "What I want to do today is to hear this Assembly cooling all of that rhetoric."