Committee checks council port staff withdrawal hearing recommendations acted on

The Committee for Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs (AERA)  has sought an assurance from Mid and East Antrim Borough Council that recommendations from a hearing into the controversial withdrawal of staff from Larne Port have been implemented.

According to corresponence received by the council from AERA, it was noted that the committee had first contacted the authority for an update in September and that chief executive Anne Donaghy had sent a reply on September 15 confirming that the report had been “considered”.

Last month, the council received further correspondence from AERA asking what actions have been taken in response to the committee’s recommendations.

The findings and recommendations were agreed by the majority of AERA committee members following its investigation into the decision made by DAERA and Mid and East Antrim Borough Council (MEABC) to withdraw staff from undertaking checks on goods entering Larne and Belfast ports on a temporary basis on February 1.

Graffiti spray painted in Larne

The committee recommended that: “Any staff member who was stood down and/or suspended from undertaking SPS checks during the time period under investigation should be informed by their employer that the PSNI’s consideration was that the risk to their safety was low and that they had no information to substantiate paramilitary involvement in the activities reported during this time

“The identity and details of grassroots contacts that provide information to senior officials should be disclosed fully to law enforcement agencies, as required, in order to ensure that relevant authorities have comprehensive information to enable them to interrogate the veracity of claims/purported threats.

“Officials at MEABC should correspond with the Cabinet Office and clarify in writing that the PSNI’s assessment of the risk to staff at POE (Ports of Entry) as at 30 January 2021 was low and that the PSNI had no information at the time, nor has it received any since, to substantiate paramilitary involvement.

“The risk management processes at DAERA and MEABC should be reviewed to identify any learning with regards to the documenting of risks to port staff during the period 21 January to 4 February 2021.”

The Braid, Ballymena

In reply, Mid and East Antrim’s acting chief executive Philip Thompson said: “Recommendation one – all port staff were advised accordingly upon return (February 2021) and have been fully updated since on all threat assessment reviews.

“Recommendations two and three were noted by council. Recommendation four – review completed. Current risk assessment references links with PSNI for both threat assessment reviews and the local contact arrangements relating to port staff risks.”

The Northern Ireland Protocol requires the completion of checks on certain goods shipped from GB into the province’s ports in advance of onward transit to the Republic of Ireland, and into the EU. The responsibility for undertaking these checks is shared between DAERA and local councils.

Twelve environmental health officers employed by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council were temporarily withdrawn from inspection duties at the Port of Larne where they had been assisting with checks post Brexit on February 1 last year.

Port of Larne

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.

The AERA report acknowledged that the “primary motivation cited by officials was to protect the safety, health and well-being of staff in the context of graffiti containing threatening messages in the vicinity” and a belief that there was “some degree of paramilitary involvement in these activities”.

However the report said the PSNI “consistently provided verbal assurances to officials at the time that they considered the risk to staff working at Port of Entry to be low and that there was no information to substantiate some of the reported activities or to corroborate paramilitary involvement”.

“The perceived risk to staff safety, and therefore the rationale for DAERA and MEABC’s decision, appears to have been predominantly based on verbal reports that officials received from grassroots contacts that were deemed by senior PSNI officers to be unsubstantiated and were in contradiction to the PSNI’s assessment that the risk to staff was low.

“The Committee therefore considers that there was limited justification for suspending staff from undertaking checks and did not identify any evidence to indicate that this decision was proportionate to the full range of information available to DAERA and MEABC officials at the time in relation to the potential threats.”

Mid and East Antrim’s chief executive, who is currently on sick leave, has indicated that she will be seeking independent legal advice in a “personal and private capacity” over some elements of the report.

In October, PSNI detectives from Criminal Investigation Branch visited the council’s headquarters at The Braid in Ballymena as part of an investigation into suspected offences of Misconduct in Public Office and under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Michelle Weir, Local Democracy Reporter

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