23rd Mar 2023

Safety fears suspend work for EU staff at Northern Irish ports

  • The land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Many checks have now been moved to Northern Ireland's ports, to prevent a 'hard' border on the island of Ireland (Photo: Eszter Zalan)

The EU Commission told its officials working at Northern Irish ports monitoring trade arrangements between the UK and Northern Ireland not to go to work on Tuesday (2 February) out of fear for their own safety.

Tensions have been on the rise over the Northern Ireland protocol, the post-Brexit trade arrangements between the UK and EU, that avoid checkpoints on the border on the island of Ireland.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

"We have asked them [EU customs officials] not to attend their duties today, and we will continue to monitor the situation and adapt accordingly," commission spokesman Eric Mamer told reporters on Tuesday.

"For us, the utmost priority is the safety of people," he added.

On Wednesday, the issue will be discussed at a video conference between commission vice president Maroš Šefcovic, British cabinet minister Michael Gove, Northern Ireland's first minister Arlene Foster, and deputy first minister Michelle O'Neill.

The precautionary move to stay home comes after unionist paramilitary groups threatened local port staff and identified them as "targets", including in graffiti.

Northern Ireland authorities suspended food checks at Larne and Belfast ports, which take place under the post-Brexit arrangements.

Irish prime minister Micheal Martin called it "an ugly and sinister development."

There has been anger among unionists against the Northern Ireland protocol, introduced at the start of the year, which is seen as potentially dividing the UK.

The protocol, part of the EU-UK withdrawal agreement, has placed checks at Northern Ireland ports themselves, to avoid checkpoints at the politically-sensitive land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The conflict between protestant unionists and catholic republicans saw decades of terrorism and civil unrest.

"We condemn very strongly any threat of violence against port officials or anybody else in Northern Ireland who are simply exercising their duties and implementing the withdrawal agreement," Mamer said.

"Whatever the reason, the threat of violence is unacceptable, full stop," Mamer added, saying that - to the commission's knowledge - the recent tension flared up before the EU executive mulled triggering a suspension of the protocol last Friday, in a row over vaccine exports.

What is Article 16?

Under the Brexit withdrawal agreement the Northern Ireland protocol deals with keeping the physical land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland open, to avoid a flare-up of sectarian tensions there.

Under the protocol, goods can be traded with some checks now introduced at the province's maritime ports - as Northern Ireland effectively remains part of the EU's single market for goods and custom rules.

Some physical checks take place in four, EU-approved, Northern Ireland ports for agri-food goods, plants and animals, to secure the EU's sanitary standards.

The protocol was a hard-won and long-fought mechanism during the London-Brussels Brexit negotiations.

Article 16 of the protocol allows the UK or the EU to temporarily suspend its operations if they lead to "serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties", although it does not specify what "serious" entails.

As a response, the other side can take "rebalancing measures".

Article 16 was meant to be used as a last resort.

However, the EU Commission last Friday (29 January) initially triggered Article 16, as part of its efforts to force pharmaceutical companies to ask for export authorisation to moves vaccines out of the EU bloc.

The worry was that Northern Ireland could present a back door for vaccines to move into the UK.

But faced with the outrage from London, Dublin and Belfast, the commission quickly reversed course, and in its final decision on the trade authorisation, published Friday night, it did not include triggering Article 16.

Commission blames Irish border cock-up on trade chief

The EU Commission caused uproar in Ireland and the UK when - in a rush to agree on a new regulation to control vaccine exports from the EU - the bloc's executive triggered a clause in the Brexit divorce deal.

Brexit deal now hinges on Northern Irish unionists

Brexit negotiators held marathon talks but the Northern Irish unionists appear to be axing UK prime minister Boris Johnson's revised deal, as EU leaders gathered in Brussels to discuss Brexit but also other divisive, long-term issues.


Key points of the Brexit deal (if it ever comes into effect)

The main points of the Brexit withdrawal deal between London and Brussels dissected. Although the EU is preparing to sign the agreement, the UK government has been rocked by resignations since its publication less than 24 hours ago.

EU starts legal action against UK over Northern Ireland

The EU-UK deal was designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland by applying checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, creating checks on the Irish Sea. London is reluctant to put that into place.


I love the EU - but the vaccine strategy is a fiasco

In my opinion, the contracts Europe negotiated with the pharmaceutical companies were extremely unbalanced. Precise on pricing and liabilities but weak and vague on supply and timing, and with escape routes to the contractual obligations of the pharmaceutical companies involved.


How much can we trust Russian opinion polls on the war?

The lack of Russian opposition to the Russo-Ukrainian War is puzzling. The war is going nowhere, Russian casualties are staggering, the economy is in trouble, and living standards are declining, and yet polls indicate that most Russians support the war.


Turkey's election — the Erdoğan vs Kılıçdaroğlu showdown

Turkey goes to the polls in May for both a new parliament and new president, after incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decided against a post-earthquake postponement. The parliamentary outcome is easy to predict — the presidential one less so.

Latest News

  1. The EU-Turkey migration deal is dead on arrival at this summit
  2. Sweden worried by EU visa-free deal with Venezuela
  3. Spain denies any responsibility in Melilla migrant deaths
  4. How much can we trust Russian opinion polls on the war?
  5. Banning PFAS 'forever chemicals' may take forever in Brussels
  6. EU Parliament joins court case against Hungary's anti-LGBTI law
  7. Three French MEPs to stay on election-observation blacklist
  8. Turkey's election — the Erdoğan vs Kılıçdaroğlu showdown

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ways to prevent gender-based violence
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: Economic gender equality now! Nordic ways to close the pension gap
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: Pushing back the push-back - Nordic solutions to online gender-based violence
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: The Nordics are ready to push for gender equality
  5. Promote UkraineInvitation to the National Demonstration in solidarity with Ukraine on 25.02.2023
  6. Azerbaijan Embassy9th Southern Gas Corridor Advisory Council Ministerial Meeting and 1st Green Energy Advisory Council Ministerial Meeting

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us