Withdrawal of port staff over Irish Sea border threat was ‘erring on the side of caution’
The decision to temporarily withdraw staff from post-Brexit check duties at Larne Port has been defended.
Mid and East Antrim Mayor Peter Johnston said the measure involving “12 young staff members” was “erring on the side of caution”, adding the council has an “extremely low threshold for risk when it comes to our staff”.
Appearing before the Stormont agriculture committee, he told MLAs: “As mayor, I am confident that by the end of today’s session the committee will have absolutely no doubt that the course of action taken by council was the only course of action that should have been taken”.
He said parties across the council had unanimously agreed to temporarily withdraw staff pending formal written threat assessment from police.
Both council staff and Department of Agriculture staff were withdrawn from the port on February 1 amid security concerns.
Mr Johnston told the Stormont Agriculture committee that he was “extremely disappointed” that the move was “shamefully mistreated, manipulated and exploited as a political football by certain parties”.
“Despite this, council stands firm over actions taken to protect our employees, given the same circumstances we would take exactly the same course of action, and that is adopting a safe not sorry approach,” he told MLAs.
“The same course of action was taken independently by both DAERA and the EU inspectorate, who both stood down their staff at the ports on February 1 as well.”
Mr Johnston also said he was “bitterly disappointed by the very apparent discrepancy and delay in the information being provided by the PSNI”.
Last week, Assistant Chief Constable Bobby Singleton told committee members that it remained the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s (PSNI) position that there were no credible threats to staff.
Mr Johnston took issue with some of the evidence given by Mr Singleton.
“The temporary assistant chief constable said that to his knowledge there had been no contact between Mid and East Antrim Borough Council and the PSNI between January 21-February 1. Completely contrary to this, however, you’ll find in the council’s written evidence a detailed log of no less than eight engagements between council and PSNI during this period,” he told MLAs.
Council chief executive Anne Donaghy told MLAs of multiple incidents of “sinister and threatening graffiti” from mid January which included the message that “all border post staff are targets”.
“There was increasing information from political representatives, contacts at grassroots and staff that suggested tensions were rising, this included reports that Crimestoppers had been informed of a number of individuals at the port were being targeted,” she told MLAs.
Ms Donaghy said there was also a report that a DAERA staff member had been followed home from work and sinister graffiti had appeared near their home.
She also said there were reports from staff of “intimidating behaviour at the ports, including an increase in stationary and slowing vehicles observed at the port and the suspected recording of car number plates details”.
“Video footage of cars taken at Larne Port also appeared on social media,” she said.
Ms Donaghy criticised “mixed messages and a lack of reassurance from the local PSNI”.
She said there was an increased presence of police at Larne Port, with 2,500 standard hours and 391 overtime hours dedicated to the area.
“In total, council had to ask for the written assurance on five separate occasions, two of which had to be escalated to the office of the chief constable as we were keen to return our staff safely to the Port of Larne as soon as possible,” she said.