Brexit checks on animal and food products arriving into Belfast and Larne ports have been suspended amid fears over the safety of staff, Northern Ireland’s agriculture ministry has said.
The decision came after Mid and East Antrim borough council agreed on Monday night to remove 12 of its staff at Larne port with immediate effect, following an “upsurge in sinister and menacing behaviour in recent weeks”.
A spokesman for Stormont’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) said: “On the basis of information received today and pending further discussions with the PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland], Daera has decided in the interests of the wellbeing of staff to temporarily suspend physical inspections of products of animal origin at Larne and Belfast.
“The situation will be kept under review and in the meantime full documentary checks will continue to be carried out as usual.”
Edwin Poots, Northern Ireland’s agriculture minister, tweeted that he had taken the decision to withdraw staff at the ports in consultation with them.
PSNI assistant chief constable Mark McEwan said force officials would meet partner agencies to discuss the situation. “The safety of staff working at points of entry is of the utmost importance to us,” he said. “Where we have any credible information we will share that with our partners and take appropriate action.
“We have increased patrols at Larne port and other points of entry in order to reassure staff and the local community.”
The Northern Ireland protocol came into force on 1 January to avoid a border on the island of Ireland but many have been dismayed by the burden it has placed on businesses.
The UK Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, the Irish government and European Commission have been working behind the scenes to establish a way of making the protocol work after its bumpy start and those efforts are now expected to be redoubled with Gove taking an urgent question on the issue in parliament at 12.30pm on Tuesday.
Tensions over checks on goods crossing the Irish sea for supermarkets and food services have surfaced in loyalist communities in the past two weeks, with graffiti threatening officials.
Mid and East Antrim borough council said the situation had caused “extreme distress and worry to staff” at Larne port who had been assisting officials from Daera and UK Border Force with checks. It said it had “no option but to withdraw them from their duties in order to fulfil its duty of care and carry out a full risk assessment”, working with the PSNI and Daera.
Last week graffiti appeared on a wall near the port warning that all border officials were targets. It is also understood staff reported that individuals had been spotted taking down their number plate details.
And two days ago police launched an investigation into graffiti in south Belfast threatening the former taoiseach of Ireland Leo Varadkar if he “set foot in Ulster”.
Peter Johnston, mayor of mid and east Antrim and a councillor with the Democratic Unionist party, said: “We have seen what I would describe as deeply troubling graffiti and a very notable upping of community tensions towards the NI protocol, particularly in recent days.
“The health and wellbeing of our staff is always this council’s number one priority and that is why the decision has been taken to withdraw them from their work at the port with immediate effect until we have very real assurances and full confidence that they can go about their duties without fear, threat or concern for their wellbeing.”
One diplomatic source told the Guardian that unforeseen consequences of the protocol were stoking tensions. “Where is the flexibility and the creative solutions that the EU called for during the Brexit negotiations? Every day there are new twists and complications and these are touching the notions of identity and sovereignty, which are hugely sensitive were the cause of past conflicts,” the source said.
Since 1 January traders in Northern Ireland have been subjected to a litany of checks on goods and in particular food being sold from Great Britain with sanitary and phytosanitary checks at Larne, Belfast and Warrenpoint posts.
But there have been concerns raised over the impact of a ban on soil coming from Britain in the form of plant imports for garden centres, which was imposed on the grounds of the risk of importing pests.
Soil on farm machinery has long been considered a risk with dirty tractors and farm parts returned or destroyed about six times a year to prevent eel worm entering the island of Ireland, according to the Northern Ireland chief vet Robert Huey before Christmas. However few expected this strict rule to now apply to sales to plant nurseries.
Jonathan Whittemore of North Yorkshire firm Johnsons of Whixley has called for urgent action overrules the firm “didn’t see coming”, telling the BBC on Monday that he feared losing £500,000 a year because of sales barrier to the region.