Larne port inspection staff withdrawal update

The findings of a PSNI threat assessment have been presented to Mid and East Antrim Borough Council and DAERA following the withdrawal of staff from inspection duties at Larne and Belfast ports.

Friday, 5th February 2021, 5:29 pm

The local authority announced at a meeting on Monday evening that staff were being withdrawn from inspection duties over “concerns for their safety and welfare” following “an upsurge in sinister and menacing behaviour” in recent weeks.

This included the appearance of graffiti in the Larne Harbour area describing port staff as “targets” and suspicious activity involving apparent information gathering, including the taking of personal vehicle registration numbers. 

The inspection of meat products was subsequently suspended at Larne and Belfast ports.

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Larne Harbour

Twelve environmental health officers are employed by the local authority to carry out checks at Larne port.

According to a statement read out at Monday evening’s meeting of the borough council, trade unions, on behalf of council members of staff assisting with checks at the port, raised “serious concerns around the safety of staff and have sought reassurance on what measures are in place to keep staff safe”.

The council said that the “ongoing situation” had 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 with the PSNI, Food Standards Agency and DAERA”.

It was also stated that the council’s chief executive had spoken with then DAERA Minister Edwin Poots to advise him of the local autority’s decision. Further discussions were due to have taken place this week.

A council spokesperson said in a statement yesterday (Thursday): “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.

“We have just received the threat assessment from the PSNI and we are currently co-ordinating our risk assessment along with key stakeholders, including DAERA, PSNI and our staff.”

Speaking at yesterday’s meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne noted graffiti and posters which have appeared in the community recently and “other forms of alert to rising community tensions”.

“We have taken steps in recent days to change operational tempo.”

However, he stated that it was “not solely a policing problem”.

“If there is one message beyond policing, I would implore people, now is the time for wise words and calm heads. We need to look now 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 tensions.”

The Northern Ireland Executive has said:  “Regardless of our very different views on the NI Protocol, the Executive is united in condemning any threats made against workers and staff going about their duties at Belfast and Larne ports.

“As public servants, these staff should be allowed to do their jobs without fear and it is unacceptable and intolerable that threats have been made.

“The threats should be lifted immediately and staff should be allowed to return to their posts and get back to their work.

“There is no place in society for intimidation and threats against anyone going to their place of work.”

DAERA Minister Gordon Lyons, an East Antrim MLA, said that he “totally condemned any threats made against workers and staff going about their duties at Belfast, Warrenpoint and Larne ports”.

“As public servants, these staff should be allowed to do their jobs without fear and it is unacceptable and intolerable that threats have been made.

“There is no place in society for intimidation and threats against anyone going to their place of work. Staff safety is of paramount importance.”

Police have said iinvestigations into these incidents are ongoing.

North Antrim Sinn Fein MLA Philip McGuigan has said that workers at Larne port should be able to go back to work immediately to “ensure the movement of goods through the port”.

In a statement issued following yesterday’s briefing from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) Permanent Secretary Denis McMahon, Mr McGuigan said: “The priority must be to see the safe return of workers to Larne port.

“I am deeply concerned after the evidence from the Permanent Secretary of the Department, that despite genuine fears caused by disgraceful graffiti, the decision to remove staff from Larne ports may have been politically motivated.

“The police have clearly put their assessment of any threat level into the public domain and it consists of graffiti and social media activity. They have stated they have no evidence beyond that, and refuted claims made at a Mid and East Antrim Council meeting.

“Mid and East Antrim Council should act immediately to get workers back to work safely and I call on DAERA to do likewise to ensure the movement of goods through the port.”

A PSNI statement from Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan on Tuesday afternoon said: “In relation to an anonymous piece of information claiming paramilitary involvement in threats, I have briefed partners that we have no information to substantiate or corroborate these claims at this time.

“Keeping people safe is our priority and the safety of staff working at points of entry is of the utmost importance to us.

“We will continue to work closely with our partners to provide them and their staff with support.  We have increased patrols at the points of entry in order to reassure staff and the local community.”

A spokesperson for DAERA said: “The Department has received the findings of the formal threat assessment from the PSNI and is currently considering it alongside its own internal risk assessment. Any decision to recommence full checks will be informed by both documents.”

Michelle Weir, Local Democracy Reporter

Click here to read: Police investigating graffiti threat to Larne ‘border post staff’

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