Michael Gove has said urgent action is needed to repair trust in Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade arrangements after officials were threatened.
The Cabinet minister vowed to work to fix difficulties on the ground which have sparked intimidation against workers conducting port checks.
Inspections at Larne and Belfast ports were suspended on Monday after sinister graffiti and reports of intelligence-gathering on inspectors.
Lorries arriving at new inspection facilities at Belfast Port on Tuesday morning were turned around and redirected by Border Force officials.
The European Commission said Brussels’ officials were also being temporarily withdrawn from duties at the ports.
There is no indication at this stage whether the threat is coming from an organised paramilitary source, rather than an individual or individuals.
Mr Gove told the Commons: “Trust has been eroded, damage has been done and urgent action is therefore needed.
“Peace, progress and strong community relations in Northern Ireland have been hard won and in recent days we’ve seen an increase in community tension, and, as was reported last night, port staff in Belfast and Larne have been kept away from work following concerns for their safety.”
Trucks arriving at an inspection facility in Belfast Port are being redirected. Three in the last 20 mins.
Inspections required as part of NI Protocol have been suspended amid concerns for safety of staff. pic.twitter.com/ppgu2bc2OG
— David Young (@DavidYoungPA) February 2, 2021
Mr Gove said they needed to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market and its place as an integral part of the UK.
He added: “The EU needs to work with us at speed and with determination to resolve a series of outstanding issues with the protocol.”
He said he would work over the coming days to fix the difficulties on the ground and preserve the gains of the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement which largely ended violence.
“It is vital that everyone in Northern Ireland and indeed in the UK exercises calmness and moderation as well as resolution in seeking to resolve the problems.”
Mr Gove said grace periods over the operation of the Protocol need to be extended.
The first grace period covered suppliers like supermarkets.
The minister said: “The problem needs to be addressed both in the short and in the medium to long term.
“In the short-term, there are a number of issues which I would not describe as teething problems, they are significant issues which bear on the lives of people in Northern Ireland which do need to be resolved.
“We do need to make sure that grace periods are 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.”
It is understood that ports staff expressed concerns that individuals had been spotted taking down number plate details.
Police officers have increased patrols at Larne Port and other points of entry.
A dozen Mid and East Antrim Borough Council staff assisting Stormont officials and UK Border Force with checks at Larne were withdrawn from their duties with immediate effect on Monday.
The council said it followed an “upsurge in sinister and menacing behaviour in recent weeks”.
Stormont’s Department of Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) officials also pulled out.
European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer added: “Obviously the security of our staff in Northern Ireland is as high a preoccupation as that of any other person working in Northern Ireland on the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement.
“We have asked them not to attend their duties today and we will continue to monitor the situation and adapt accordingly.”
Political parties in Belfast are sharply divided on EU withdrawal and the Northern Ireland Protocol, which keeps the land border in Ireland open but imposes controls on the Irish Sea.
Unionists have urged the British Government to override parts of the Protocol which they fear endangers trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, its biggest market and supplier of goods.
Checks on incoming vehicles at Northern Ireland’s ports caused by the end of the Brexit transition period has led to disruption.
Hauliers experienced problems shipping goods into Northern Ireland from Great Britain, some parcel deliveries were halted and supermarket shelves temporarily developed gaps last month, although some red tape issues have been resolved.
Nationalists do not support disruption on the Irish Sea but are adamant that the open Irish land border must be protected by including Northern Ireland in EU-wide trading regulations.
Graffiti appeared last month referencing tensions about the Protocol and describing port staff as “targets”.
In a joint Stormont executive statement ministers in the powersharing administration 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.”
The ministerial statement added: “The threats should be lifted immediately and staff should be allowed to return to their posts and get back to their work.”
Taoiseach Micheal Martin told RTE he condemned the “intimidatory tactics”.
“It’s a very sinister and ugly development.”
Focus on the protocol intensified following Friday’s ill-fated move by the EU to suspend aspects of its operation amid the furore over coronavirus vaccine supply in the bloc.
The European Commission swiftly backtracked after facing intense criticism for attempting to hinder the free flow of movement across the Irish border in respect of vaccines using a legal clause called Article 16.
Mr Gove said: “Not only plans to stop vaccines being delivered through legally-binding contracts at the height of a pandemic, but also – and critically – a unilateral suspension of the painstakingly designed and carefully negotiated provisions of the Protocol, which the EU has always maintained was critical to safeguarding the gains of the Northern Ireland peace process.
“Article 16 exists for good reasons but is meant to be invoked only after notification, only after all other options are exhausted and in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.”
Police last month warned that discontent in loyalist communities was “growing” over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is designed to allow the country to follow the EU’s customs rules and has caused delays at ports because of new declarations and checks, but said their feedback was not causing significant concern.