Northern Ireland’s First Minister called for calm amid the row over post-Brexit trade disruption as the region’s police chief warned people to step back from the brink of violence.
Arlene Foster stressed that frustrations must be channelled through constitutional means after Police Service of Northern Ireland chief constable Simon Byrne warned of a “febrile” atmosphere.
Mrs Foster’s sentiment was echoed by Irish premier Micheal Martin who said parties needed to “dial down the rhetoric” over the protocol amid tensions rising.
Inspections on animal-based produce arriving from Great Britain, which are required under Brexit’s contentious Northern Ireland Protocol, are currently suspended amid fears for the safety of staff.
Police have blamed menacing graffiti on disgruntled individuals and small groups and have made clear there is no evidence of wider paramilitary involvement in threats.
Mr Byrne nevertheless warned of the potential for the simmering tensions within the loyalist community to escalate.
“It is now time for wise words and calm heads,” Mr Byrne told members of the NI Policing Board.
“We need to work together to look at a route map to normality because that seems to be the opportunity before us, to step back from the brink in terms of community tension.”
Mrs Foster, who has calling for the protocol to be scrapped, made her own appeal for calm after a meeting of the Stormont executive.
However, she stressed that the concerns of unionists over the protocol’s potential to damage Northern Ireland’s link with the rest of the UK could not be dismissed or ignored.
The DUP leader has herself been forced to dismiss claims from rivals that she is whipping up tensions with her vocal opposition to the protocol.
“We will have to find a way forward, that’ll have to be found quickly because the disruption is causing community tensions and of course we do want everyone to stay calm and we do want people to act through constitutional politics but if they’re being ignored then they become more angry and even more tense,” she said.
The DUP leader appeared at a post executive press conference alongside Sinn Fein Finance minister Conor Murphy because deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill is currently self isolating.
Mr Murphy and his party colleagues have rejected any suggestion that the protocol, which is designed to avoid a return of a hard border on the island of Ireland, should be binned.
It is a position shared by the Irish Government.
Taoiseach Micheal Martin said a common sense pragmatic approach needs to be taken to ironing out some of the issues.
“There are areas where we can fine tune that protocol, I believe, let’s remember it’s only about four weeks in operation,” Mr Martin told RTE’s Prime Time programme on Wednesday evening.
“We do need to take a common sense pragmatic approach to it, to iron out some of these and issues in terms of its implementation,” he added.
“However, when potential danger arises, or threats and tensions rise, I think we all need to dial down the rhetoric, and we appreciate the language that was used today in terms of all of us taking a calm and collected approach to this, and working in concert to resolve these issues.”
Foreign Affairs minister Simon Coveney has said it is “unrealistic” to suggest the arrangement, which is the mainstay of the Brexit withdrawal deal, could be ditched.
Mr Murphy said there were agreed UK/EU structures to address issues of concern around how it has functioned in the first number of weeks since it came into force.
He said those structures should be used to find solution in a calm manner.
“I think it is very clear that we do need a dialling down of the rhetoric, and we’ve heard some comments which I think are dangerous from people who should know better on radio and programmes yesterday,” he said.
“And of course those people will never be the ones who will either suffer as a consequence of any action taken nor be involved in it themselves and will engage in some handwringing if violence does break out.”
The politicians were both asked to react to comments from David Campbell, a spokesman for an umbrella group representing loyalist paramilitary organisations.
He caused controversy on Wednesday when raised the prospect of people having to “physically fight” to maintain freedoms within the UK.
Mr Byrne branded those remarks as “inflammatory” on Thursday.
Mrs Foster added: “I didn’t hear David make those comments yesterday but I have to say I was quite shocked when I heard them just about 10 minutes ago actually when somebody related the comments to me.
“Obviously, from my perspective, I’m always against any forms of violence, I believe in constitutional politics.”
Mr Murphy said Mr Campbell “should know better”.
“People need to be very careful with words and the intent behind those words,” he said.
Boris Johnson has warned he would consider suspending elements of the protocol if the issues causing trade disruption are not addressed.
The Government and European Commission are due to hold further talks aimed at finding solutions next week.
Cabinet Minister Michael Gove has suggested extending of a series of grace periods that are currently in operation that limit the level of bureaucracy associated with the protocol.
The Government wants to extend these exemption periods, some of which are due to expire at the end of March, to January 2023 in order to provide space to find permanent solutions.
Asked about the prospect of extensions on Thursday, European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said it would be for the Joint UK/EU committee on the functioning of the protocol to “see what is the way forward”.
Checks on animal-based produce remained suspended on Thursday.
Executive ministers were awaiting a formal threat assessment report from the PSNI before a decision is taken on when inspectors can return to their duties.
Mr Murphy said: “We want to see the workers back in place working safely as quickly as possible.”
The DUP is pursuing a series of political moves aimed at undermining the protocol, including a boycott on engagement with the Irish government on issues related to its operation and a vow to oppose any protocol-related legislation at the Assembly.
The party also launched an online parliamentary petition on Thursday morning with the aim of getting the 100,000 signatures required for the matter to be considered for Westminster debate.
The petition passed more than 40,000 signatures shortly after 6pm on Thursday.