The DUP Minister for Agriculture used port staff as “pawns” in efforts to whip up a reaction against new Brexit trade rules, Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd has said.
Inspections of animal-based food produce arriving at Belfast and Larne ports were suspended last Monday, February 1, after the Department of Agriculture staff were withdrawn.
While graffiti has appeared to threaten workers at the port, claims that paramilitaries were actually targeting the workers appear to have been fabricated for political purposes.
Stormont minister Edwin Poots ordered the withdrawal of inspectors conducting Brexit checks, despite being informed that the PSNI did not believe there was an increased threat risk. At the time, he said it is “difficult for politicians to (control) the level of anger that is in the community in respect of this”.
The staff have returned in the past week following PSNI advice.
Mr O’Dowd said the information given to the Stormont assembly and to the local council, which also withdrew its staff, “was based on half-truths, misinformation and erroneous information.”
The Sinn Féin assembly member for Upper Bann told the stand-in DUP Minister Gordon Lyons: “Workers were used as pawns in a very, very cruel game.”
“The fact (is) that there is no credible threat, which has been stated by the PSNI, and the fact that they allowed it half way around the world before the truth got its pants on, that that agenda of those workers being removed suits your political agenda.
“And rather than dealing with the facts, minister, you are allowing these non-existent threats to carry forward a political agenda, which would be contrary to your statutory duty and the code that you have as a minister.”
Graffiti and posters protesting the new port regulations have continued to appear in different locations in the North, attacking the ‘Irish Sea Border’. A large group of men gathered in Markethill, County Armagh on Monday night to put up posters in the village.
One placard states: “Play your part in opposing the border in the Irish Sea, Markethill stands up” with an image of the UVF Larne gun running operation in 1914.
Another says: “The Northern Irish men and women are born free and equal in dignity and rights to their English, Scottish and Welsh brothers and sisters”.
There are reports of similar posters appearing in Banbridge, Portadown, Loughgall and Armagh. Placards in Lurgan town centre depicted a female figure holding a rifle underneath the phrase “Ulster 1912 - 2021?”, while below it stated: “Deserted. Well - I can stand alone” and “time to decide”.
Mr O’Dowd condemned the posters, some of which he said seemed to be replicas of a historical poster of the 1912 Larne gun-running period, when thousand of guns were illegally landed in Ireland by the UVF.
“The addition of the term ‘Time to Decide’ is seen by many as a call to repeat the use of the gun in modern day Irish politics,” he said.