The EU’s staff based at ports in Northern Ireland will be temporarily withdrawn due to security concerns for the workers, a spokesperson for the European Commission said on Tuesday.

“We asked them not to attend their duties today, and we will continue to monitor the situation and adapt accordingly,” a Commission spokesperson said, stressing that the safety of EU staff was of primary importance.

The measure comes after Northern Ireland’s agriculture ministry on Monday temporarily suspended post-Brexit physical inspections of products of animal origin at the ports of Larne and Belfast, citing safety concerns.

Earlier on Monday, Mid and East Antrim borough council decided to remove 12 of its staff from the port of Larne due to an “upsurge in sinister and menacing behaviour in recent weeks.”

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Confirming the move, Northern Ireland’s Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots said worker “safety remains paramount.”

A number of security incidents have been reported locally in the past fortnight, including graffiti in loyalist areas expressing threats to port officials, with a message daubed on a wall in Larne saying that all border staff were targets.

People have also reportedly been seen taking down the number plate details of port workers.

On Sunday, police opened an investigation into graffiti on an estate in southern Belfast that threatened to lynch the Republic of Ireland’s Tánaiste (Irish deputy prime minister) Leo Varadkar.

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The tension is part of unionist opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol, a core element of the UK’s post-Brexit trade deal with the EU which allows Northern Ireland to remain in the EU’s single market, but which effectively introduces a border in the Irish Sea.

The protocol is designed to guarantee a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – which is still part of the EU – but means some goods from the UK mainland are subject to sanitary and phytosanitary inspection on arrival at Northern Irish ports.

The extensive checks, on goods such as meat, milk, fish and eggs, have caused numerous problems for suppliers since they came in on January 1, 2021.

Throughout January, disgruntled shoppers in Northern Ireland have voiced their annoyance and concern at bare supermarket shelves as a result of EU goods being delayed due to the extra red tape on imports.

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