Belfast councillors have appealed for “cool heads” after Brexit-related checks at NI ports were suspended amid security concerns.
Elected representatives were attending the monthly full meeting of Belfast City Council on Monday evening when news emerged that the neighbouring Mid and East Antrim Council had withdrawn its Larne harbour environmental officers temporarily from duty, following undisclosed threats.
Stormont has since announced the temporary suspension of physical inspections of food consignments at Larne and Belfast. NI lorries arriving on boats into Belfast and Larne received waivers on Tuesday and were directed straight out of the ports.
Some loyalist areas have seen graffiti opposing the new Irish Sea border in the past month, with references to employees at checkpoints as “targets.” Larne port staff have reported attempts to gather personal information.
A Belfast City Council spokesperson said: “Belfast City Council is working in close partnership with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, and the Food Standards Agency to implement the new regulations. A small team of Belfast City Council officers are supporting these checks at Belfast Port, with a 24/7 operation in place.
“We are basing our operational decisions on information received from the PSNI. We are continually assessing the ongoing situation and have regular contact with PSNI and the Harbour Police.”
At the council meeting, while discussing the minutes of the council’s Brexit committee, DUP Councillor David Brooks said the EU had tried to invoke article 16, to stop EU vaccines coming into Northern Ireland “in the name of vaccine nationalism.”
He said: “We know they have rowed back from that position after quite some outrage, managing to unite for the first time in many years, all the parties in Northern Ireland, the Irish government and the UK government.”
He said: “I think we got to see the true face of the EU – a protectionist racket that is only interested in itself.” He added: “They have no interest in the Good Friday Agreement, they have no interest in the peace process, and it seems they have no interest in the opinions of Dublin now. They have no moral high ground left to take.”
Sinn Fein Councillor Ronan McLaughlin said the EU decision had “no doubt played into the hands” of those against the Irish protocol element of the Brexit agreement. He added: “The Remain parties don’t like the protocol, we didn’t want it in the first place. We believe we shouldn’t have been leaving the European Union. But the protocol is the least worst option.”
He said: “On one hand the DUP is criticising the EU, rightly so, for triggering Article 16, but on the other hand, is calling on Boris Johnston to trigger it on different matters. You are speaking out of both sides of your mouths. Article 16 is right for one thing, but not right for another.”
Alliance Councillor Nuala McAllister said: “We need to make sure that we remain calm. We have to make sure that we do not use hostile language or aggression. We are seeing some very difficult situations being played out.
“We have seen the graffiti across our walls, we have seen threats made to specific people here in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, and we really need to dial down the rhetoric.
“We have personal responsibilities and moral obligations to ourselves as elected representatives to ensure we are calm and measured when calling for action over the coming weeks and months. But most importantly moving forward we need to be constructive.”
SDLP Councillor Seamus De Faoite: “Rather than closing ranks and stubbornly refusing to listen, the EU listened to Belfast, Dublin, London and to leaders across the block, and did the right thing and backed down from this particular position. I just wish the DUP had done the same when warned about the consequences of Brexit.
“The DUP were warned that Brexit meant borders, especially when they refused to keep the whole of the UK in the single market or the customs union.”
He added: “Like others, I am appalled at the ramping up of language over the last number of weeks, and the particular response to this mistake by the EU, a mistake that has been backtracked from.” He said it was a mistake for “parties to be marching people to the top of the hill, without any idea what they will do when they get to the top.”
Green Councillor Anthony Flynn said: “Cool heads need to prevail. Let’s be perfectly honest, we are in a difficult position, and it is a very challenging time for our people in this city. It is a divided society where tensions often flare up at difficult times.
“I would urge those parties and those people, who I believe have used this situation as a way to try and drum up support for whatever political ideology that they have. The outer working of that has been very severe.”
He said the situation with Mid and East Antrim staff at Larne Port was “a shocking and absolutely disgraceful situation.” He added: “I would urge members to mellow their language, talk to their colleagues in the assembly and further afield, and let’s bring a bit of diplomacy to this situation.”