LONDON: Politicians in Britain, Northern Ireland and the European Union on Tuesday condemned threats against border staff that prompted authorities to suspend post-Brexit checks on animal products.
The Northern Ireland government said it had stopped inspections at Belfast and Larne ports “in the interests of the wellbeing of staff.” Mark McEwan, Assistant Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, said the force had increased patrols “in order to reassure staff and the local community.”
Graffiti recently appeared in the Larne area, 20 miles (32 kilometers) northeast of Belfast, referring to post-Brexit tensions over Northern Ireland and describing port staff as “targets.” Staff have also reported signs of suspicious behavior, including people writing down vehicle license plate numbers.
Local mayor Peter Johnston said there had been “deeply troubling graffiti and a very notable upping of community tensions.”
Since the U.K. left the European Union’s economic structures at the end of 2020, customs and veterinary checks have been imposed on goods moving between Britain and the bloc. Under the U.K.-EU divorce terms there are also checks on British goods going to Northern Ireland, because it shares a border with EU member Ireland.
An open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is a key pillar of the peace process that ended decades of violence in the region. With Britain out of the EU, the only way to avoid checks along that border was to keep Northern Ireland bound to some of the EU’s rules -- and that means checks on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
That decision is opposed by pro-British Unionist politicians, who say it amounts to a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. Police have warned that violent pro-British Loyalist groups could capitalize on the tensions.
Politicians from all parties in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government condemned the intimidation. In a joint statement, they said “the Executive is united in condemning any threats made against workers and staff going about their duties at Belfast and Larne ports.”
“There is no place in society for intimidation and threats against anyone going to their place of work,” they said.
While Irish nationalist parties broadly support the Brexit deal’s arrangements for Northern Ireland, Unionist parties see the U.K.-EU agreement as part of the problem.
Ian Paisley, a lawmaker from the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, said the new trade arrangements had upset “the delicate community balance which exists here.”
“Those who thought they could impose something against the will of every unionist are now reaping the seeds of division they have sown,” he said.
The sensitivity of Northern Ireland’s status was underscored last week, when the EU threatened to ban shipments of coronavirus vaccines to Northern Ireland as part of moves to shore up the bloc’s supply. That would have drawn a hard border on the island of Ireland — exactly the scenario the Brexit deal was crafted to avoid. British, Irish and Northern Ireland politicians all expressed alarm at the plan, and the EU dropped the idea.
European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer condemned the threats of violence and stressed that “the situation has actually arisen some time ago,” before the EU’s moves over vaccines. He said senior politicians from the U.K., Northern Ireland and the bloc would discuss the ports situation on Wednesday.
He said EU staff in Northern Ireland had been told to stay away from work on Tuesday, “and we will continue to monitor the situation and adapt accordingly.”