Stormont Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots says he can “absolutely and totally stand over” a decision to temporarily withdraw staff from post-Brexit checks at ports earlier this year.
Mr Poots said he was “very concerned” about the risk to staff and revealed that the independent charity Crimestoppers received a report of a threat against staff from a “coded source”.
He rejected the suggestion his decision was made in opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol, and went on to accuse the Stormont Agriculture Committee of conducting a “politically driven” inquiry into the matter.
Giving evidence to the Stormont committee, he said he was made aware of the message to Crimestoppers during a telephone conversation with Assistant Chief Constable Barbara Gray.
Mr Poots claimed the PSNI did not share that information with Belfast City Council or Mid and East Antrim Council which as well as his department had staff working at the ports of Belfast and Larne.
“That was actually a coded threat and that caused me much more concern because of the fact there was a code with that threat,” he told MLAs.
“I was really annoyed to be quite frank that that material was not shared with Belfast and Mid and East Antrim Council by the police because I think that they have a duty to ensure that the councils, who have that duty of care to their staff, are fully aware of everything that is going on and therefore it struck me that that sort of material should not have been with held from the councils at that point.”
Mr Poots also claimed there “seems to be some issue with information that was coming from police on the ground and police at a senior level”, adding that police on the ground were “telling our staff that there was problems, that there were credible threats”.
He told MLAs he was concerned that in one of his conversations with police, “they referred to taking intelligence from social media”.
“I’m sorry but police intelligence should be better than taking it from social media.
“Police intelligence should be on the ground picking up information, and I know that police officers have been picking up that intelligence at that lower level and have expressed that,” he said.
Mr Poots contended there was a “whole series of events” which led him to conclude they could not guarantee the safety of staff.
These included graffiti threatening port staff in Larne, evidence given by PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, concerns raised at a meeting of council leaders and a council leader contacting him to raise concerns about safety of staff at Larne Port.
“I also had several discussions with my colleagues and a range of other stakeholders across Northern Ireland who reported threats that I assessed to be credible,” he said.
On balance, he said, he asked the permanent secretary, in light of his duty of care to staff, to act.
Mr Poots then temporarily stood down as minister to receive medical treatment, during which time Gordon Lyons stood in as minister.
Port checks in line with the Northern Ireland Protocol resumed on February 10 following a threat assessment by the PSNI.
“My request to suspend physical checks on products of animal origins was not taken lightly, and given the potential threats I had been made aware of, my decision was based on ensuring the health and safety of my officials which is of paramount importance,” he said.
“I can absolutely and totally stand over the decision to temporarily remove staff until we ascertained further information and had absolute clarity before putting them back in again.”
The Stormont agriculture committee has been examining the decision by the Department of Agriculture and the two councils to temporarily withdraw staff from February 1.
It came amid tension among unionists and loyalists at additional checks on goods arriving into ports from Great Britain as part of the Brexit protocol.
The decision to withdraw staff sparked a row with some political parties questioning the veracity of the threat level against port staff.
Police said loyalist paramilitaries were not behind alleged threats to port staff.
Sinn Fein MLA Philip McGuigan put to Mr Poots that he has made known his opposition to the Brexit protocol, and the suspicion that the threats to staff were “exaggerated to get a particular political outcome or create tension around the Irish protocol”.
Mr Poots responded saying his presumption “conflates two issues which is an entirely wrong premise”.
“I am dealing exclusively with the issues raised by staff and the issues that were raised by people on the ground in terms of public representatives who I consulted with,” he said.
“There’s a whole series of events to go through here that would have led us to a conclusion that we could not guarantee staffs’ well being, and I put it to you, if you were in my position, and you couldn’t guarantee your staffs’ well being, what would you do?
“Would you put them at risk?
“Because I certainly wouldn’t.”
Mr Poots also criticised the Agriculture Committee during his appearance on Thursday, claiming they were conducting a “politically motivated and politically driven inquiry”.
Committee chairman Declan McAleer responded saying members take health and welfare of staff “very seriously”, adding that the objective of the inquiry was to clarify why the minister’s decision to withdraw staff “seemed at odds with what we’d been told by PSNI”.
Responding to Mr Poots’ comments later, a PSNI spokesperson said: “Keeping people safe is the PSNI’s priority and the safety of staff working at points of entry is and has always been of the utmost importance to us.
“We have been consistent in our commitment to work closely with partner agencies to support them and their staff.
“Where we have any credible information about a threat we will share that with our partners and take appropriate action.”