Meat product inspections suspended at Larne and Belfast ports due ‘upsurge’ in threats

The inspection of meat products has been suspended at Larne and Belfast ports following threats to staff.

Tuesday, 2nd February 2021, 6:18 pm

The development comes after Mid and East Antrim Borough Council announced the immediate withdrawal of its staff from inspection duties at Larne port  over concerns for their “safety and welfare”.

The council said that it follows “an upsurge in sinister and menacing behaviour” in recent weeks, including the appearance of graffiti within the local area describing port staff as “targets”.

A spokesperson for the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) said: “On the basis of information received, and pending further discussions with the PSNI, DAERA has decided in the interests of the well-being of staff to temporarily suspend physical inspections of products of animal origin at Larne and Belfast.

Graffiti daubed on a wall in the harbour area of Larne.

“The situation will be kept under review and in the meantime full documentary checks will continue to be carried out as usual.”

The PSNI has already confirmed the matter is under investigation.

Earlier today Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan held what he said was a productive meeting with officials from the DAERA, councils, Department of Justice, Northern Ireland Office, Border Force and Belfast Harbour Police.

ACC McEwan added: “I am concerned about signs of tension within the community in recent weeks. We’ve seen graffiti at various sites and other forms of intimidation on social media. Our investigations into these incidents are ongoing.

“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.”

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

“Serious concerns” have been raised by trade unions on behalf of staff members around suspicious activity, such as apparent information gathering, including the taking of personal vehicle registration numbers.

The council said the ongoing situation has caused “extreme distress and worry to its staff and it has 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”.

The threats against workers have been condemned by the Northern Ireland Executive.

A statement issued by the Executive Office said: “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.

The Mayor of Mid and East Antrim, Councillor Peter Johnston, said: “We have seen what I would describe as deeply troubling graffiti and a very notable upping of community tensions towards the NI Protocol, particularly in recent days.

“The health and well-being of our staff is always this council’s number one priority and that is why the decision has been taken to withdraw them from their work at the port with immediate effect until we have very real assurances and full confidence that they can go about their duties without fear, threat or concern for their well-being.”

The council’s chief executive Anne Donaghy has spoken with (then) Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) Minister Edwin Poots to advise him of the local authority’s decision and further discussions are planned this week.

Sinn Fein Councillor James McKeown commented: “Our staff will step away from this work and will only return when we are totally satisfied it is safe and right for them to do so. There are simmering tensions within the local community at present and we will not stand by and let our staff be targeted when they are just doing their jobs.”

DUP Councillor Gregg McKeen said: “Last night, the council unanimously agreed to withdraw all staff working at Larne port after growing tensions in the community against the NI Protocol. This includes graffiti referencing staff carrying out port checks as well as fears staff’s car number plates were being recorded in the area.

“Police patrols have been increased in the Larne port area in response to the concerns.

East Antrim Ulster Unionist MLAs Roy Beggs and John Stewart have also condemned the intimidation of Mid and East Antrim Council staff and DAERA staff who have been carrying out checks at Northern Ireland`s ports.

Mr Beggs said: “Whatever anger there may be in the community about the imposition of the Protocol on Northern Ireland, those issues must be resolved peacefully and through the use of politics. All energies should be focused on that.”

Mr Stewart said: “Clearly there is a sinister element at large here. This will be a small group of individuals who have been hyped up by people whose lack of judgement on Brexit and the subsequent negotiations have led to these extra checks at the port of Larne and elsewhere.”

East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson stated: “It was naive of Her Majesty’s Government to believe that they could renege on the promises they made to the unionist population to believe a quick fix agreement with the European Union, without consequence.

“The fettering of trade between GB and NI has now regrettably led to threats against staff at both Larne and Belfast Ports. These threats must be condemned without equivocation and I welcome support from all parties to withdraw staff.”

Michelle Weir, Local Democracy Reporter

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

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