Larne port council staff removal inquiry motion falls

Alliance Councillor Danny Donnelly has described the failure of a motion to secure an inquiry into events surrounding the withdrawal of council staff from the port of Larne as “a disappointing day for openness and transparency”.

Wednesday, 24th February 2021, 9:40 am

More than 80 viewers tuned in to watch Mid and East Antrim’s elected representatives “knock lumps out of each other” at a special meeting on Monday evening.

The meeting was called by Alliance which is seeking an independent investigation into the “timeline of events, the sources and information which led to this decision given the seriousness of the situation around the removal of staff from Larne port and apparent discrepancies around information provided”.

An amendment by Ulster Unionist Cllr Keith Turner to postpone a council investigation until one by Stormont’s DAERA Committee has taken place was also defeated.

Larne port. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

The local authority announced at a meeting on February 1 that staff were being withdrawn from inspection duties over “concerns for their safety and welfare” following “an upsurge in sinister and menacing behaviour” in recent weeks.

A statement issued by the council at the time said: “Trade unions on behalf of council members of staff assisting with the checks at the port have raised serious concerns around increasing suspicious activity such as apparent information gathering, including the taking of personal registration plates from their vehicles.”

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

A joint statement issued on behalf of trade unions NIPSA, Unite and GMB called on Mid and East Antrim Borough Council to withdraw remarks attributed to trade unions and to apologise describing them as “untruthful”.

In a statement issued after Monday’s meeting, Cllr Donnelly said: “This is a disappointing day for openness and transparency, not just for Mid and East Antrim, but across Northern Ireland.”

The meeting opened with Alliance Alderman Gerardine Mulvenna asking Mayor Cllr Peter Johnston to “excuse himself from the chair” saying: “The issue is not how you view your impartiality but how an independent observer would assess your impartiality on issues to be discussed.”

In response, the Mayor said: “I find that quite interesting because in light of impartiality, you would be well aware that any meetings that we attended, we attended together and we had the same exposure to information.”

He asked if she was also excluding herself with the other group party leaders.

She said: “I disagree with what you are saying and find it extremely disappointing” to which the mayor responded by saying that during the past two weeks, Alliance has tried to “bring this chamber into disrepute”.

The Mayor said that if Alliance had any questions, they could have telephoned him.

Addressing the meeting, Cllr Donnelly said he fully supported the action to withdraw staff based on information given at the time.

Subsequently, he said that information received from the trade unions and PSNI seemed to question the facts given to elected members on February 1.

“We feel that these discrepancies have not been resolved despite requests for clarification. We feel answers received so far have been unsatisfactory,” he stated.

Following receipt of a threat assessment by the PSNI and risk assessment by the chief executive, Cllr Donnelly continued, it was decided the council staff could return to work and they did so immediately.

Cllr Donnelly stated that group party leaders or councillors have not seen these documents and were not consulted on this decision.

He went on to say that the council’s decision to remove workers has had “serious consequences” for the reputation of the council. 

He added that the motion was “not a personal attack on anyone or political football but an attempt to  get to the truth” adding that an independent inquiry would “help to repair damage to the reputation of the council”.

Ballymena SDLP Cllr Eugene Reid also said he believed council staff and the group party leaders were being “used as pawns”.

He added that the decision by councillors to withdraw staff had been based on information that had been given.

Coast Road Sinn Fein Cllr James McKeown asked why the decision to withdraw staff was taken prior to any meeting with the PSNI which took place the next day.

He said: “There is a widespread suspicion among the public this may well have been a political decision to hype up a particular political agenda surrounding Brexit and Protocol and the safety of staff and councillors were merely pawns in this decision.”

Carrickfergus DUP Cllr Marc Collins commented that the debate had “descended into another Brexit bashing session and Q&A from Sinn Fein”.

TUV Cllr Timothy Gaston pointed out that 40 members of the chamber had taken the decision to remove the staff. He remarked that concerns had been raised with police at a Policing and Community Safety Partnership meeting prior to the meeting and they “did not seem overly interested”.

Cllr Turner said the timing of his amendment was to “alleviate or stop the public witnessing council knocking lumps out of each other”.

The motion at the special meeting fell by 26 votes against with 11 in favour and one abstention.

Michelle Weir, Local Democracy Reporter

Click here to read: NI Protocol: Council withdraws all staff from Larne Port due to ‘community tensions’

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