Politicians Told To "Dial Down The Rhetoric" On Northern Ireland After Menacing Graffiti And Threats To Border Staff
Politicians in Northern Ireland are calling for calm after local authorities took the emergency step of removing staff from border posts in Belfast and Larne due to growing security concerns.
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council on Friday night withdrew 12 members of staff carrying out post-Brexit checks at Larne port, citing an “upsurge in sinister and menacing behaviour in recent weeks”.
Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs later said that it had temporarily suspended physical checks at Larne and Belfast ports, with a spokesperson saying the decision was taken “in the interests of the wellbeing of staff".
Staff working at the ports, who since January 1 have been carrying out checks on animal and food products entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, said they had seen people taking down their number plate details, The Guardian and others reported.
The European Commission this morning said it "condemns very strongly any threat of violence against port officials in Northern Ireland who are simply exercising their duties and implementing the Withdrawal Agreement" and that "the first and utmost priority is the safety of people".
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove, European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic, and Northern Ireland's First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill are set to hold a video call tomorrow to discuss the situation at Northern Ireland's ports.
Stephen Farry, the Alliance MP for North Down, on Tuesday morning tweeted a picture showing graffiti on his constituency office reading “RIP GFA,” in a likely reference to the Good Friday Agreement – the peace treaty signed in 1998 which brought about relative peace in Northern Ireland after years of sectarian conflict.
Farry told PoliticsHome: "The threats against staff doing their jobs around checks at the port of Larne are totally unacceptable. We stand in solidarity with staff who are only doing their jobs".
He said: “People need to dial down the rhetoric around the Protocol. The rule of law must be maintained".
Farry’s colleague Kellie Armstrong, the Alliance MLA for Strangford, tweeted a picture of the words “stay out” spray painted onto her office window, while Alliance councillor in Bangor, Connie Eagen, tweeted an image of graffiti on a wall which read: “Banger says no to Irish Sea border".
The issue of how to preserve the fragile status quo in Northern Ireland was at the centre of years of Brexit negotiations.
Both the government and European Union were committed to avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland. This eventually led to the creation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which came into effect when the UK left the Brexit transition period on New Year’s Eve.
However, the Protocol created the need for new customs and health checks on a range of goods crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, which prompted fears of a potential loyalist backlash and new border staff becoming targets.
Louise Haigh, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said the threats were “deeply disturbing and completely unacceptable” and that “these workers — all workers — have a right to work free from fear”.
She said: “There is simply no justification for threats and intimidation. Calm is now needed and everyone has a responsibility to dial down the rhetoric and ensure the safety of people in Northern Ireland”.
Sammy Wilson, the DUP MP for East Antrim, whose party opposes the terms of the Protocol, said: "The fettering of trade between GB and NI has now regrettably led to threats against staff at both Larne and Belfast Ports. These threats must be condemned without equivocation and I welcome support from all parties to withdraw staff".
The Northern Ireland Protocol has been under the spotlight for various reasons over the past few days.
The European Commission on Friday night avoided a huge diplomatic row with the UK when it abandoned an explosive plan to override the Protocol by invoking Article 16.
The move was designed to impose controls on vaccine exports to the UK via the Republic of Ireland’s frictionless border with Northern Ireland, amid a shortage of jabs among member states.
There have also been shortages of certain foods in Northern Irish supermarkets as businesses moving goods across the Irish Sea struggle to get to grips with mountains of new paperwork brought about by Brexit.
Officials were waiving checks on lorries entering Northern Ireland this morning, according to the BBC's Northern Ireland editor John Campbell.
Matthew O’Toole, the assembly member for South Belfast, called on politicians on all sides to moderate the language they to discuss Northern Ireland and the Protocol.
“The safety of workers must of course be paramount. It is also true that the rule of law needs to be be upheld and people need to be able to get on with their work,” he told PoliticsHome.
“All public representatives should be measured in their language moving forward”.