Council chief seeking legal advice over Larne port staff withdrawal findings

Mid and East Antrim’s Chief Executive is seeking legal advice over the findings of an inquiry by the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs  into the withdrawal of staff from the Port of Larne.

Wednesday, 4th August 2021, 11:54 am

The report had been on the agenda for discussion at a meeting of the Borough Council on Monday evening.

However, the item was removed from the public session which is streamed online and discussed behind closed doors.

The council’s chief executive Anne Donaghy has indicated that she will be seeking independent legal advice in a “personal and private capacity” over some elements of the report.

Port of Larne. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

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.

Officials at Northern Ireland ports are obligated to undertake checks on goods transported from Great Britain in order to ensure compliance with EU regulations.

Twelve environmental health officers employed by Mid and East Antrim Borough Councill were temporarily withdrawn from inspection duties at the Port of Larne where they had been assisting with checks post Brexit.

The 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.

Anne Donaghy, chief executive, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council.

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 report continued: “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.

“Over the course of its investigation, the Committee identified several issues relating to correspondence sent by the CEO of MEABC to the UK Government Cabinet Office on 30 January which outlined a range of operational challenges associated with the Protocol and cited paramilitary involvement in the activities that were deemed to be a security risk to staff.

“The Committee also found a number of concerns regarding the quality and credibility of some of the evidence provided by MEABC due to several contradictions and inconsistencies in the information,

“The CEO initially told the Committee that she composed the Cabinet Office letter in her capacity as Chairperson of a Task and Finish Group of SOLACE NI and then later informed the Committee it was written in a dual role as Chairperson of the Group and her position as CEO of a local authority

“The Cabinet Office letter was not provided to the Committee upon its initial request for information and the MEABC CEO explained that this was, in part, because the correspondence was confidential.

“However, the Committee later identified that the letter had been shared with multiple elected representatives two days after it had been issued

“The CEO briefed elected representatives at an MEABC Full Council meeting on 1 February that she could not be sure of paramilitary involvement in the activities in the vicinity of Larne Port and required a written assessment from the PSNI to determine this, less than 48 hours after stating in the Cabinet Office letter that she was “aware of the involvement of paramilitaries”

“The Mayor of MEABC intimated when giving oral evidence to the Committee that he had not seen the Cabinet Office letter and it was later identified that it had been sent to him via email on 1 February.”

At the time, the Mayor of Mid and East Antrim was Knockagh DUP Councillor Peter Johnston.

In response, the Committee for AERA has issued four recommendations.

“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 the documenting of risks to port staff during the period 21 January to 4 February 2021.”

Council officers have recommended that Mid and East Antrim notes the recommendations made by the AERA Committee in its report.

A spokesperson for Mid and East Antrim Borough Council said: “Elected members resolved to discuss the matter in closed council.”

Michelle Weir,  Local Democracy Reporter

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Click here to read: Mid and East Antrim’s Larne port role could cost ratepayers £5m, council is told

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