How post-Brexit trade plans revived old conflicts in Northern Ireland

  • Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen

Throughout Brexit negotiations, both British and European politicians were warned that trade arrangements could rekindle old divisions in Northern Ireland.

Checks on goods arriving by sea from Great Britain in Belfast and Larne have had to be suspended, after threatening graffiti appeared. It was aimed at those doing the checking.

There's anger at what some people some feel is a border going up between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

On Tuesday, cabinet minister Michael Gove said the European Union needed to help resolve problems with customs rules included in the so called Northern Ireland protocol.

What happened in Belfast and Larne?

All regulatory animal-based food checks were suspended at the northern ports on Monday.

Twelve Mid and East Antrim Borough Council said the decision was made following an “upsurge in sinister and menacing behaviour in recent weeks”.

Graffiti appeared in both areas referencing tensions about the Northern Ireland Protocol and describing port staff as “targets”.

Ports staff have expressed concerns that individuals had been spotted taking down number plate details.

Lorries arriving at new inspection facilities at Belfast Port on Tuesday morning were turned around and redirected by Border Force officials.

What is the protocol?

It was how the EU and the UK overcame the main sticking point in the Brexit withdrawal talks: the Irish border.

To avoid disrupting cross-border trade and a return of checkpoints along the politically sensitive frontier, they essentially agreed to move new regulatory and customs processes to the Irish Sea.

That means the checks are now focused on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with goods continuing to move freely within the island of Ireland.

Edwin Poots’ department oversees new checks required on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain Credit: Liam McBurney/PA

Trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is largely unaffected by the protocol.

The red tape applies on movement in the other direction. Since December 31, a range of regulatory animal and plant safety checks have been in operation, including physical inspections for a proportion of arriving freight at new port facilities.

Customs declarations are also required for incoming commercial goods.

Why are people unhappy with it?

Some unionists and loyalists believe the protocol has created a barrier between the region and the rest of the UK, undermining the constitutional integrity of the Union.

The annoyance is on two levels – practical and symbolic.

They highlight that GB is Northern Ireland’s biggest trading partner and the protocol is damaging those economic links.

There has undoubtedly been disruption in the early weeks of the protocol, evidenced by depleted supermarket shelves, as many traders have encountered problems shipping goods across the Irish Sea.

The Irish border was a sticking point during the Brexit withdrawal talks, Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Every piece of evidence of disrupted trade feeds loyalist fears that a wedge has been driven between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, with the protocol forcing an economic reorientation with the Irish Republic.

Who could be responsible for the threats?

Police believe disgruntled individuals or small groups may be behind the incidents.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said loyalist paramilitaries, who once instigated serious violence, are not involved.

Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan said: “We are concerned about the actions of a number of individuals and small groups.

“We don’t believe that those actions are organised. But they do give us cause for concern.”

How have politicians responded?

Stormont ministers have united to appeal for threats against workers conducting Brexit port checks to be lifted.

In a joint Stormont executive statement, they said: “As public servants, these staff should be allowed to do their jobs without fear and it is unacceptable and intolerable that threats have been made.”

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin Credit: Brian Lawless/PA

Taoiseach Micheal Martin said it was a “sinister and ugly” development.

The European Commission swiftly backtracked last week after facing intense criticism for attempting to hinder the free flow of movement across the Irish border in respect of coronavirus vaccines, using a legal clause called Article 16.Michael Gove told the Commons: “Trust has been eroded, damage has been done and urgent action is therefore needed.”

The Cabinet minister added that a three-month light-touch regulation grace period for supermarkets following the end of the Brexit transition should be extended.

“We do need to make sure that supermarkets and other traders can continue, as they are at the moment, to be able to supply consumers with the goods that they need.”

On Tuesday night, the Prime Minister said Northern Ireland’s place in the UK will be “protected and strengthened”.

Boris Johnson also said the UK’s commitment to the people of Northern Ireland is “unshakeable”.

Mr Johnson tweeted: “Our commitment to the people of Northern Ireland and our Union is unshakeable. Recent EU moves have undermined the Protocol & understandably provoked concern.

“Let me underline that, now & in the future, Northern Ireland’s place in the UK will be protected and strengthened.

“What is needed is urgent action from the EU to resolve outstanding problems with Protocol implementation, so as to preserve the gains of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement & ensure that Northern Ireland benefits from Brexit just like every other part of our United Kingdom.”