Inspection officials at one of Northern Ireland’s ports have been removed with immediate effect because of concerns for their safety amid rising tensions over post-Brexit checks.
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”.
The move comes amid rising tensions in loyalist communities over the rigorous implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol introduced on 1 January to avoid a border on the island of Ireland.
The council said the situation has caused “extreme distress and worry to staff”, and 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 Police Service of Northern Ireland, Food Standards Agency and Stormont’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera).
The staff had been assisting officials from Daera and UK Border Force with checks.
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 and the cause of conflict,” the source said.
Ballymena Social Democratic and Labour party councillor Eugene Reid also condemned the threats as a disgrace and challenged political leaders to “take the poison out of dialogue” relating to the protocol.
“After all the distance this society has travelled, we now have a new generation of young people threatened just for doing their jobs. It’s an indictment of how things stand,” he 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.