Yesterday, Edwin Poots, the Northern Ireland Minister for Agriculture, said he had decided to withdraw staff from the port of Belfast as well as Larne after “sinister and menacing” graffiti sparked concerned over staff safety and welfare.
The graffiti objected to the perceived “Irish Sea border” imposed as a result of terms of the Brexit trade deal with the EU.
Ulster loyalists, who oppose any divergence between Northern Ireland the rest of the UK, are believed to be behind the messages.
All regulatory animal-based food checks have now been suspended, Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) said.
The Mid and East Antrim Council said in a statement “graffiti within the local area referencing increasing tensions around the Northern Ireland protocol and describing port staff as ‘targets’.”
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The mayor of Mid and East Antrim, Peter Johnston, described the graffiti as “deeply troubling” and said it was upping “tensions towards the Northern Ireland protocol”.
The DUP councillor said: “The health and wellbeing 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 wellbeing.”
Sinn Fein councillor James McKeown added staff would “only return when we are totally satisfied it is safe and right for them to do so”.
He said: “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.”
Eugene Reid, SDLP councillor, said it was a “disgrace” the council had been forced to withdraw their staff from the port.
Mr Reid said: “The threats need to be lifted and those responsible need to get off the backs of these workers.
“Over the course of the last number of days, political leaders have fallen far short of the standards we should expect.
“The language used and tone of the discussion relating to the Northern Ireland protocol as raised tensions and whipped up fear.
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“It should be the role of all leaders to extract the poison from public dialogues, and I’m challenging everyone to do that.
“I am also asking that all political leaders clearly and unequivocally condemn those behind these threats and their tactics.”
This comes after PSNI assistant chief constable Mark McEwan warned the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee there was increasing discontent among loyalist communities.
He said they are opposed to the protocol as it places a customs and regulatory border between Britain and Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland protocol came into effect on January 1 when the UK officially left the European Union.
But unionist parties in the North have called for it be scrapped and for Article 16 to be invoked to address problems over the supply of food and other goods.
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