BCN-13 NIreland halts post-Brexit checks over staff safety





NIreland halts post-Brexit checks over staff safety

DUBLIN, Feb 2, 2021 (BSS/AFP) – Border inspections at two Northern Irish ports were suspended on Tuesday, after staff were threatened over contentious new Brexit controls in the long-divided British province.

Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) said late Monday that regulatory animal-based food checks were dropped at Belfast and Larne ports “in the interests of the wellbeing of staff”.

At Larne Port, the local Mid and East Antrim Borough Council withdrew 12 staff after “an upsurge in sinister and menacing behaviour in recent weeks”, with hardcore unionists blamed.

The council cited “the appearance of graffiti within the local area referencing increasing tensions around the Northern Ireland Protocol and describing Port staff as ‘targets'”.

Regional media reported that attempts seemed to have been made to collect information on staff, including vehicle registration plates, in acts of intimidation recalling the darkest days of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Executive — formed under a power-sharing agreement between pro-British unionist and republican parties who want a united Ireland — jointly condemned the situation.

“There is no place in society for intimidation and threats against anyone going to their place of work,” a statement said on Tuesday.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland meanwhile said officers were performing “increased patrols at Larne Port and other points of entry” ahead of a meeting on Tuesday to discuss the threat.

– The protocol –
The Northern Ireland Protocol came into effect on January 1, when the Brexit transition period ended and the full effects of the UK’s 2016 decision to split from the EU were finally felt.

The protocol is designed to prevent a hard border emerging between Northern Ireland and EU member the Republic of Ireland, a frequent flashpoint in three decades of violence over British rule.

Up to 1998, some 3,500 were killed as unionists who favoured ties to Britain engaged in a deadly tug-of-war with republicans seeking to merge the province with Ireland.

Security checkpoints and patrols along the 500-kilometre (310-mile) border were targeted by republican paramilitaries in some of the bloodiest chapters of the sectarian violence.

Post-Brexit, London and Brussels feared that splinter republican groups still active after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement peace deal could target checks and use them as a recruiting tool to grow their base.

– ‘Sea border’ –
The protocol avoids the need for a hard border by transplanting EU single market and customs union checks to Northern Irish ports and airports.

However, some in the unionist community believe they create a de facto “sea border” between Northern Ireland and mainland Great Britain — England, Scotland and Wales.

They feel the border disrupts the key principle of free movement between the united territories and binds the province in an economic union with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state.

Unionists — and more hardcore loyalists sometimes linked to paramilitaries — branded 2019 legislation to enact the Northern Ireland protocol “The Betrayal Act”.

Last week, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan told UK lawmakers that officers were noticing “growing discontent” among the unionist community — expressed in graffiti and on social media.

On Monday night, Northern Irish first minister Arlene Foster — head of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) — called threats against port staff “utterly reprehensible”.

She told broadcaster UTV that “there is community tension in Northern Ireland”.

The protocol became the renewed focus of unionist ire over the weekend after a coronavirus vaccine row pushed the EU to warn it would invoke “Article 16” of the treaty to restrict jab exports to the province.

The fallback provision allows London or Brussels to unilaterally suspend aspects of the deal in special circumstances.

However, Brussels quickly backtracked on the threat — now widely considered a diplomatic bungle — after attracting criticism from the UK, Ireland and all of Northern Ireland’s mainstream political parties.