Brexit tensions in North Ireland have stepped up sharply, with checks on animal products and food from Britain at the region’s largest ports being suspended following threats to staff to enforce the new trade rules.
Staff withdrawal from Belfast and Larne ports comes amid concern from local councils over ‘sinister and threatening behavior’ and graffiti attacking the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol in some areas dominated by trade unionists die-hard pro-British.
The protocol, which keeps Northern Ireland in the EU customs regime and the single market in goods, was introduced to keep an open border with the Republic of Ireland after Brexit to protect the peace agreement of Good Friday 1998.
But it is fiercely opposed by all Unionist parties, who wanted Northern Ireland to leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK, and its operation has become highly political.
Last Friday, Arlene Foster, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, described as “incredibly hostile” the decision of the European Commission to invoke a emergency clause in the protocol to prevent vaccines from passing from the EU to the region. The policy was abandoned within hours.
Cabinet Minister Michael Gove on Tuesday urged all parties to work “calmly” to defuse tensions around the protocol and described as “despicable” threats to port officials in the region.
Mr Gove will meet with Maros Sefcovic, Vice-President of the European Commission, with Ms Foster and Michelle O’Neill, Deputy Prime Minister, on Wednesday to discuss escalating tensions.
‘In the short term there are a number of issues that I wouldn’t characterize as start-up issues – these are significant issues affecting the lives of people in Northern Ireland, which need to be addressed,’ Mr Gove said. .
Mr. Gove wants to extend “grace periods” covering the transport of parcels and certain goods, including chilled meat, and address issues related to trade in items such as seeds and the movement of pets.
Although the protocol was accepted by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as the price of his Brexit deal, Tory Eurosceptics have spoken out against it in the House of Commons. “Protocol is not working,” said former Tory leader and pro-Brexit MP Iain Duncan Smith.
Northern Ireland port staff have expressed concern over suspicious activity around their workplaces, including apparent attempts by people to remove registration numbers from cars. Police said they had increased patrols at Larne Port and other points of entry.
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council unanimously agreed to immediately remove staff from their inspection duties due to concerns about their safety. The board had 12 environmental health officers working at the port and other senior staff.
“This follows an upsurge in sinister and threatening behavior in recent weeks, including the appearance of graffiti in the local area referring to growing tensions around the Northern Ireland protocol and describing port staff as ‘targets’ “,” said the board.
“The unions, on behalf of staff council members involved in port checks, have raised serious concerns about staff safety and sought reassurance about the measures in place to ensure staff safety.”
The threats have been criticized across the political spectrum. Ian Paisley Jr, a DUP MP for North Antrim, said he categorically condemned all threats against staff, saying “such tactics” have no place in a democracy.
“This is the grim reality of those who have imposed conditions on Northern Ireland without the consent of the delicate community balance that exists here.”
The North Irish leader of five parties led by the DUP and Irish nationalists Sinn Féin called for the threats to be lifted, saying staff should be allowed to return to their posts to work.
Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin told Dublin that the threats were “a very grim and ugly development”.
Eric Mamer, spokesperson for the commission in Brussels, condemned all threats of violence and the safety of staff was at the heart of concerns. He rejected the idea that the commission’s attempt to circumvent the protocol caused threats to escalate.
The European Commission also said it also told EU staff in ports on Tuesday “not to assist with their duties”, saying it “will continue to monitor and adapt accordingly”. Despite the suspension of controls, shipments continued to transit through Belfast on Tuesday. P&O, owner of the Port of Larne, made no comment when asked if the shipments had been stopped.
The DUP has stepped up its demands on Mr Johnson to invoke special measures to override the protocol’s provisions since last Friday’s row with the European Commission. Mr Gove said the Brussels decision was “a big mistake”.