Condemnation of Threats to Workers at Border Control Posts

Matter of the Day – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 2nd February 2021.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 10:30 am, 2nd February 2021

Mr Stewart Dickson has been given leave to make a statement to condemn threats to workers at border control posts, which fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called to speak, they should rise in their places and continue to do so.

All Members will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject. I remind Members that I will not take points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has finished.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to speak this morning. Before I commence on the Matter of the Day, I want to add to your words about former Minister Poots and to wish him well on the difficult health journey ahead of him, some of the aspects of which I am personally all too aware of.

We will all be aware of the news today and, indeed, over the last week about the unacceptable threats made against staff at the port of Larne. The matter escalated yesterday, when Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, together with the Department, had to take action to withdraw environmental health and DAERA staff from the port of Larne and the port of Belfast. First and foremost, my concern is for the staff, who have been placed under that totally and utterly unacceptable threat. What we need to do today is ensure that a calm atmosphere is created so that the council, DAERA, the PSNI and all those involved in the safety and security of the staff can work together on the issues around the threats to provide an opportunity for a proper and safe return to work for the employees. Sadly, I know all too well what happens when there is unrest in somewhere such as East Antrim. I have received personal threats, and my office, as Members will be aware, was attacked on previous occasions. I sincerely hope that we are not heading back into that situation.

I, for one, want to work hard to ensure that we have calm, cool, collected thoughts on the issue. That is my appeal and my pledge today. Over the last number of weeks, on public media and social media, we have seen a situation that could perhaps be described as being "heated up". Today, I want to hear the Assembly cooling all the rhetoric to ensure that people can go about their daily duties in delivering for us in Northern Ireland. The last thing that we want to do in the Brexit debate is add further barriers. My appeal today is that we have a calm and rationale discussion and work to ensure that all those employees can return to work as soon as possible.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

First, I offer my best wishes and prayerful support to my good friend and colleague Edwin Poots, as he takes what, I hope and trust, will be a short break from ministerial duties to undergo emergency surgery. I also pass on the good wishes of many of my constituents who have enquired about his health in recent weeks.

On the Matter of the Day, the threats to staff at Larne port must be condemned. I ask those behind that sinister activity to desist immediately. People going about their daily work should not have to face such sinister attention. I support the council decision to remove staff from those positions, given the real and obvious safety concerns. I understand that it was a unanimous decision taken by the entire council. I was contacted on Saturday by the PSNI on the back of social media misinformation and a veiled threat against me. That, too, is unacceptable and amounts to an attack on the democratic process and politics.

All that being said, there is also an important and very real issue in the unionist community at this time, and that is the absolute rejection of the Northern Ireland protocol. The protocol is viewed in the unionist community as completely negative and distasteful. Sadly, as we know from many years of troubled history in Northern Ireland, there are those at the fringes of the community who will use those opportunities to flex their muscles. That is the sad reality of these circumstances. I urge unionism to unite and deal with the protocol in an exclusively peaceful and democratic fashion and focus on the source of the problem. That is the only available path to removing what has been foisted on us. East-west trade and the movement of goods must be restored immediately, but it must be achieved peacefully and democratically.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

My thoughts are with the members of staff who have been threatened and with Stephen Farry, whose constituency office was attacked and daubed with the words "RIP Good Friday Agreement". We all know that that is not the case. That is why we are here. I want to be clear that the source of the problem is Brexit. The Brexit that you argued for, the Brexit that you wanted, the Brexit that you paid millions of pounds to campaign for in the North and that lost the vote in the North. Let us be very clear. The source of the problem today — a real and live threat around getting food into this place — is the threat, not the protocol.

I thank Mr Dickson for bringing this to the Floor of the House today. As he said, we need to have cool heads, we need to temper our language and we need to know that the tone that we set in this place is what will happen outside. For us to not take full responsibility for that is disingenuous. What we say and do in here will have a massive impact on what happens out there. If people in the unionist and loyalist community do not feel that you are representing their views in this place, you need to speak to them, meet them, talk to them, listen to them and represent their views properly, in the proper fashion in the House and in a democratic manner. You should not allow threats to be made against staff or allow attacks on Stephen Farry's, Stewart Dickson's or anyone else's constituency office. It is not acceptable, and we all have to be careful. That includes social media. If people do not have cool heads, they should keep their hands off their phones. That is my advice to everybody. Be careful, be temperate, watch your tone and keep cool heads because we have big responsibilities to look after people here.

I sincerely hope that any threats made against any member of staff, at the ports or anywhere else, will be withdrawn immediately. We all have to accept responsibility for our tone and those whom we may influence outside this place. That includes me and everybody in the House, including the Members opposite. I ask you to seriously think before you speak.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Like others, I condemn the threats against staff at Larne port. I just heard William Irwin mention a threat against him: William, that is reprehensible as well and is to be roundly condemned, as is the attack on Stephen Farry's office that we have just heard about. This behaviour is despicable; it is disgraceful. We all have a duty to calm things down. Today is not particularly a day for politics. The type of politics that today is about is paving the way ahead.

We know what the problems are. The problems are there, and they will be there for the foreseeable future if we continue to crank it up. The politics that we are about today and should be about is calming down the atmosphere, looking at the individual problems and seeing how we can resolve them one by one. We need to go about the business that we are elected to do: to be there for the betterment of society and the community.

With specific regard to the threat at Larne, those young women — they mostly are young women — have been left there in that dilemma. I have been contacted by some of the families, and it is despicable and disgraceful. The council has a duty of care to its employees, along with the PSNI and us, as elected Members, to work collectively to bring calm to the situation and address those issues. If people are engaging in illegal behaviour by collecting car registration numbers, spraying threatening graffiti and that type of stuff, they have to be identified and brought before the courts. The duty of all of us is to bring it down, calm the situation, identify the issues and address them collectively and calmly, to pave the way forward for the society that we are here to represent and to bring about a spirit of accommodation and reconciliation, not a spirit of division.

To conclude, I will use the occasion to send my best wishes to a good friend of many years, Edwin Poots. I wish him well in his post-operative recovery. I hope that it will not be too long before he is back holding the reins at the Department.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 10:45 am, 2nd February 2021

I, too, send my best wishes to Edwin Poots. Hopefully, he will have a speedy recovery.

I unreservedly condemn the threats against all border control staff at Larne and, indeed, Belfast harbours. Let us be clear: there should be no place for violence or the threat of violence, but, for that to happen, we all need to look carefully at what we do and at what we have advocated. The British Government have reached an agreement with Europe and set themselves in terms of the Northern Ireland protocol. However, those protocols are not set in stone. Already, we have seen adjustment. There needs to be a clear reflection on those protocols, and we need to make sure that they are proportionate and reasonable. What has been introduced, however, is not proportionate or reasonable. There is growing discontent within the unionist community, and I can see that only growing as more and more people recognise that they have difficulty buying seeds and plants and in being able to get a small parcel or goods delivered to them. Therefore, there needs to be adjustment and reflection. I plead to all parties that may have fought hard against a hard Brexit: we have what we have. I ask all those who then pressed for a hard, full introduction and implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol to think carefully about what they have done. They are causing discontent and instability. I urge a rethink. There are the interests of the EU, of the Republic of Ireland and of everyone who lives in Northern Ireland to be reasonably accommodated.

The Ulster Unionist Party has always advocated freedom of movement, North/South and east-west. A hard border in the Irish Sea is causing significant problems, and the protocol needs to be changed. Again, I say that all of us need to reflect on what we have advocated. We need something that the entire community can buy into.

The Belfast Agreement indicated that Northern Ireland's position would change only with the agreement of the people of Northern Ireland. The hard border down the Irish Sea has changed that and has the potential to create economic and political instability. We all have an interest in avoiding that, so I ask everyone in the Chamber to reflect on where we go from here and to urge for changes in the disproportionate, hard Northern Ireland protocol.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I join in the best wishes to Edwin Poots at this difficult time for him and his family.

Violence is wrong and always was wrong; threats of violence are wrong and continue to be wrong. I have been very clear that, even though this is an iniquitous, damaging, hateful protocol that is unstitching the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it needs to and must be fought politically. It is the failure of effective political action that opens the door to have other miscreants with wrongful motives fill a resulting vacuum.

Last night, DAERA withdrew staff from the ports. If it had done that, not in face of threats, but as a bold political move, saying, "We're not going to enforce the partition of the United Kingdom", there would have been less scope for anyone to issue threats and make trouble to staff. That is a lesson in itself. It is political action that is seen to be effective and determined that is the best antidote to threats of this nature.

Before people get too sanctimonious, let me say to the House that the border between the EU and the United Kingdom is in the Irish Sea because of threats of violence if it had been put in the place where it should be. It was the implicit — nay, sometimes explicit — threats that violence would return to the island of Ireland if ever there were a border, such as it even would be, on the island of Ireland because of Brexit. Let people remember that some were happy to ride in the shadow of that threat to force the border to the Irish Sea.

As for Sinn Féin, I will take no lectures from a party that, to this very day, justifies the most heinous violence of the IRA's terrorist campaign. Let us be clear: violence can only sully a just cause. Violence, or the threat of violence, has no contribution to make, and —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

— it must be given no place but —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

— instead be faced with active political activity.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

I thank Stewart Dickson for bringing the Matter of the Day to the Chamber. I also send my best wishes to Edwin Poots and his family through this difficult time. As Deputy Chair of the AERA Committee, I look forward to working with Gordon Lyons in what, hopefully, will be a short time frame.

I condemn the threats against workers at Larne and Belfast ports. There can be no place for threats such as these, from wherever they emanate. They need to be lifted immediately. Everyone should be able to go to their work free from fear and intimidation. I spoke to the police this morning and requested further meetings. The PSNI needs to identify and establish quickly who is responsible for the threats and to take action against those responsible. The workers from Mid and East Antrim Borough Council and DAERA need to be back at work as quickly as possible to carry out the necessary checks so that further frustration is not caused at our ports.

My colleague Declan McAleer, the Chair of the AERA Committee, has also requested meetings with DAERA so that we can establish the facts and get the issues resolved as soon as possible.

Politicians in the Chamber must use language responsibly and draw the heat out of the situation. I am curious about what Mr Allister said. He seemed, on the one hand, to be condemning those who were issuing threats, but, on the other hand, asking the AERA Minister and officials to break international treaties and the law in some way. The Member needs to clarify that.

Brexit is a reality and so is the protocol. Threats at Larne and Belfast ports, or against elected representatives and others, will not change any of that. In the Chamber, we need to use our time wisely and calmly to resolve any issues that we can in the Irish protocol to allow freer trade east-west and along this island. We need to stand collectively against these threats and deal with the issues at hand through the mechanism of politics and nothing else.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

I also wish Edwin Poots well. I am pretty confident of his speedy recovery.

I thank Stewart Dickson for bringing this Matter of the Day. It is 2021, and it is absolutely shameful that, in Northern Ireland, people are being stopped from going to their work. No one should be put in that position. We will, of course, await the PSNI's assessment of the situation.

It is equally shameful that elected reps are being targeted. All this is being done in the name of the protocol, but nobody likes the protocol. The House voted against the protocol and the withdrawal Act. Brexit is absolutely the problem. Brexit split the regions of the UK, and Brexit remains the problem. There is no good Brexit for Northern Ireland; there was never going to be a good Brexit for Northern Ireland. Those calling for the removal of the protocol need to come forward with credible solutions before whipping up tensions and marching people to the top of the hill and leaving them there all by themselves.

We almost look back to the halcyon days of Theresa May's withdrawal agreement and the deal that she was able to propose as a solution. When people in the House speak of breaking delph, nooses tightening and acts of aggression, we become part of the problem, rather than giving solutions. Let us look at where we are and at creating solutions in the best interests of all the people in Northern Ireland, not just at some people's interests and at maintaining divisions.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

First, I send my best wishes to the Agriculture Minister, Edwin Poots, as others have done. I hope that he is back at his job soon. I also stand in solidarity with any workers who have been affected by what has happened at Larne, and with Stephen Farry, on whose constituency office graffiti has been daubed.

As others said, it is extremely important that we approach the issue with extreme sensitivity of language. I have always endeavoured to do so. It is important that we understand what is happening here. Yes, it is important that, first, we acknowledge that Brexit is the root of the issues that we face, but I do not want to completely rehash all the debates around Brexit. It is important that we focus on the situation in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol.

First, many of the checks that are being carried out at Larne and Belfast are a continuation of some that were happening long before Brexit, and, indeed, long before the Good Friday Agreement, as plant and animal products entered the island of Ireland. The fact that the UK has left the EU sanitary and phytosanitary area means that, unfortunately, there have to be certain controls on plant and animal products. Do we want to see easements, greater information and the protocol being made to work? Absolutely. I agree with a lot of what others have said about that. However, let us be clear about what that means: this is a continuation of checks that, in many ways, have already happened. That is not to say that Brexit and the protocol have not brought real changes; they have.

Secondly, it is also worth saying, as people talk about the political context, that the withdrawal agreement renegotiated by Boris Johnson — it is not, I have to say, to my or my party's liking — includes a consent mechanism. Therefore, the people who talk about the lack of consent in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol should reflect on the fact that there is a consent mechanism. People who are feeding into the idea that this is somehow happening in an anti-democratic way or in a way that is without people's consent should reflect on the fact that a consent mechanism is built in.

Finally, I go back to what others have said, which is that this is a unique society. It is important that we all speak carefully and in even tones about the challenges that we face — and we do face challenges. We are in no doubt about that. We want to make it work. Furthermore, the rule of law is completely sacrosanct. None of us can talk out of both sides of our mouth when it comes to the rule of law, saying that it should be upheld but then saying x, y and z. The law is the law is the law.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank Mr Dickson for bringing the matter to the House. I join others in sending my best wishes to Edwin Poots. Having been in a similar situation to his and Mr Dickson's in the past, I know that he has a long journey ahead. I also send my best wishes to Gordon Lyons and Gary Middleton as they assume their duties.

As leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, I condemn wholeheartedly the graffiti daubed on Stephen Farry's office and, indeed, I understand, on the office of Kellie Armstrong, and the threat against William Irwin. There is no rule anywhere in Northern Ireland that says that politicians should be threatened in any way. It undermines the democratic process. One of the reasons why we believe strongly in being British and in being in the Union is that we abide by the rule of law and, indeed, we ensure that we do not accept threats, no matter where they happen to be. The Ulster Unionist Party completely condemns any attacks on workers. Any attempt to stop people going to their work is unacceptable.

However, there is an issue here, and you are quite right, Mr Speaker, that we need to be very careful with the language that we use. The issue here is with the Northern Ireland protocol. Yesterday, the Ulster Unionist Party put forward very sensible solutions to try to deal with the situation in order to reduce tensions so that we do not have these issues of rising anger from people across Northern Ireland on everything from seeds to the movement of armed forces. Somewhere in the region of 2,500 pieces of legislation will be imposed upon us in this Assembly that we will have absolutely no say in whatsoever.

I understand that the vice president of the European Union and Michael Gove will this week be meeting the First Minister and deputy First Minister to talk about derogations, and the EU Commission has recognised that there are some significant issues. It talks about a reset. We have put down a framework for that reset, and the way to do that is to make sure that the protocol does not completely undermine and trash the Northern Ireland economy, which, quite frankly, it is beginning to do. We need to do something about that, and the easiest way to do that is to invoke article 16 and look carefully at annex 7. Then we can spend the next two to three months renegotiating, with the people of Northern Ireland at the table and the elected representatives from our Executive being full and equal partners in those discussions to make sure that we get those derogations across the line because, no matter what we say, we have to move on from this issue.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 11:00 am, 2nd February 2021

Before I say anything about the Matter of the Day, I add my support to that expressed for Edwin Poots and send him every good wish for a full recovery.

I echo the words of others who have said that all threats to staff are serious. That includes threats to Members of this House and their staff. I want to make it clear that I stand with Kellie Armstrong, Stephen Farry and their staff in that regard. The safety of those working in Northern Ireland ports is also a matter of absolute priority as we navigate a resolution to current issues. Everyone has a right to go to work without fear, and I condemn intimidation or threats made to staff carrying out their important work at our ports. In my capacity as a member of the Policing Board and as a member of the AERA Committee, I support the staff of both organisations and will work with political colleagues to reduce tensions.

As we discuss the implications of actions today, we must be aware that any disruption caused to our supply chains, with physical inspections of products of animal origin being temporarily suspended, will impact everyone in our society. Senior Ulster Farmers' Union officials have already expressed their concern today that the supply of food may be affected by the suspension of checks. Supply chains were already strained with increasing pressures as a result of the health pandemic and Brexit complications, but trade must continue to flow. Further delays will have associated complications and increased costs. I am aware that preparations are being made for the AERA Committee to be updated fully at the earliest opportunity on those matters, and I put on record my thanks for the swift response by the Committee Chair and officials to my request late last night in that regard.

Speaking as a member of the Policing Board, I fully expect that members there will be briefed as soon as possible, and, hopefully, members of that body will resolve to offer full support to the police as they brief on and handle these issues, police the pandemic and police the community, all against the backdrop of dissident terrorist threats. In closing, with growing tensions reported in the community, I appeal to everyone to remain calm, dial down the rhetoric and follow police advice.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Members, time is up. I thank all the Members who have contributed to this Matter of the Day in relation to threats. I thank them for their contributions, for the moderation in their remarks, and for their condemnation of the threats to workers in the Larne port area and in the offices of a number of Members of this House.