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‘Limited justification’ to stand down port staff carrying out NI Protocol checks, investigation finds

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Belfast Port (Niall Carson/PA)

Belfast Port (Niall Carson/PA)

Belfast Port (Niall Carson/PA)

An investigation into the decision to withdraw staff undertaking customs checks at Belfast and Larne ports has found there was “limited justification” to do so.

The Assembly’s Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee published its report into DAERA and Mid and East Antrim (MEA) Borough Council on Friday.

A number of threats directed towards staff were daubed on the walls close to the two ports due to the checks on goods from the UK as a result of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

It was feared the threats were linked to paramilitaries.

On February 1, Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots stood down the workers as their safety was “paramount”.

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MEA Council also removed staff after an upsurge in “sinister and menacing behaviour”.

During its investigation, the agriculture committee examined oral and written evidence provided by key stakeholders.

It was informed that there were multiple factors that contributed to the decision to withdraw staff from undertaking protocol-related checks.

The committee found that officials cited the main reason why staff were withdrawn was a perceived risk to their security, with some senior individuals believing there was paramilitary involvement.

The PSNI also provided consistent verbal assurances to officials that the risk to port staff was low and that there was no information to substantiate paramilitary involvement.

In conclusion, the report found: “There was limited justification for the decision to suspend staff from undertaking checks.”

The committee also identified several issues relating to correspondence sent by the MEA Council’s chief executive to the Cabinet Office on January 30, outlining a range of protocol-related challenges and paramilitary involvement in activities in the vicinity of the ports.

“The committee has concerns regarding the quality and credibility of some of the evidence provided by MEA Council, due to several contradictions and inconsistencies in the information provided,” the committee stated.

A number of recommendations for consideration were made, such as informing staff that the risk to their safety was low, to reveal the identity of “grassroots” contacts claiming the threats were from paramilitaries, and that MEA Council should tell the Cabinet Office that the threat was low and the PSNI has no proof that paramilitaries were involved.

In a statement, a MEA Council spokesperson said: “Council has a very low threshold concerning threats and the safety of its staff, and will always take decisive action to prioritise the safety and wellbeing of employees.

“Elected Members considered a wide range of factors at a full Council meeting on 1 February 2021 before taking the unanimous, cross-party decision to temporarily withdraw staff from Larne Port, pending a formal written threat assessment from the PSNI.

"These included several instances of sinister and threatening graffiti appearing in and around Larne Port, together with instances of video footage being recorded at the Port and posted on social media, and information from a range of stakeholders.”

Deputy chair of the agriculture committee Philip McGuigan MLA, said it is clear that workers should not have been removed from Larne Port following the “damning findings” of the investigation.

“It’s our view, based on this investigation, that the decision to remove these workers was political rather than in the best interests of staff,” stated the North Antrim Sinn Fein MLA.

“The safety of workers must always be paramount, this decision only served to create unnecessary worry and hurt for staff and their families.”

The SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone said the decision to withdraw staff was “significant”, before adding it “increased pressure and tension at a time of immense political strain”.

"This incident raised the political temperature unnecessarily and created immense disruption for port staff,” he said.

"I can fully appreciate the actions of employers who want to protect their staff but it must be based on independent assessment of risk and threat. Given the PSNI evidence, it is clear the action taken was not warranted.”



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