Trade union leaders have said checkpoint staff based at Larne Port were told there was “no threat to their safety” just hours before the decision was made to withdraw them from their posts.

The unions also denied making claims that staff car registration details had been collected.

The revelations came as part of the Stormont Agriculture Committee investigation into the decision to withdraw customs staff from ports on February 1 following allegations their safety was in danger.

Also Read: Border staff pulled from Larne and Belfast ports over safety threats

The session on Thursday (March 11) marked the first of the committee’s oral evidence sessions into the matter.

Alan Law from NIPSA said he felt the union had been “dragged into” the issue.

“As trade union officials, our priority is the health and safety and well-being of the people we represent so we take no exception to an employer wishing to withdraw staff because they feel those staff are at risk,” he said.

However, he added that the council’s “embellishment” of statements attributed to the union had caused “great concern”.

“It would be our view that by including us in those statements, it is to give credence to council decisions which we were not part of.

We were also made aware that the council had reached out to the PSNI in and around the same time and had been assured that there was no threat to staff. It is our understanding staff were advised of that and told they could carry on working.

“There was a decision later on in the evening to withdraw staff and there is a significant gap in our understanding of how some of those decisions were made.”

When pressed further on what he meant by this, Law said staff were advised at around 3:00pm, hours before the decision was taken, that there was no threat to staff.

He added it was his understanding this had come on the back of discussions the council had been having with PSNI.

“We were surprised that the council didn’t want to meet with us the first thing the next morning to alert us to the fact that this decision had been taken. To alert us to what they knew about this, what they were going to do in order to protect the interests of staff – any of those things,” he said.

…We found out about it on the evening news – and that’s the only way we found out about it.

Law said one MP “made very serious claims” on local radio.

“One of which included that the trade unions were calling for staff to be withdrawn and listening to that there were comments made that staff were so concerned because graffiti had appeared on gable walls near their homes – we have never heard that repeated by anyone,” he said.

“We don’t know where that information came from and we don’t know why it was stated, but it was stated.”

The next day Law said he made a request for an online meeting the director responsible, however, added that he “never received a response.”

“In all of this, there are people who have jobs to do, they have families, they have their own concerns about all of this, and clearly anyone affected by a decision by an employer to withdraw them from work is going to be under stress,” he said.

Registration numbers

Law said he did not know why the mayor had made comments about the personal registration numbers of staff being collected.

“We were being accused of having told council that staff were having their number plates recorded,” he said.

That’s quite a serious develpment for people because that implies that people’s personal safety is not only at risk becasue they are at work but people are trying to form some sort of database or information around where they may live, follow them home, target their families, target their homes.

“So there are some quite serious connotations around implying that and I would have thought that if the first anyone is hearing that is on the media – well that’s no way to handle that for your staff.”

“…We certainly know that we did not say and have never said and there is no communication from us whatsoever to indicate that staff are having their number plates recorded,” he said.

I can only imagine that if I was a member of staff hearing that for the first time potentially on the evening news, I would have been horrified. And we were certainly horrified.

Law said the council had put the issue down to “a miscommunication”.

“It’s a very serious miscommunication,” North Antrim MLA Philip McGuigan said.

“…There’s a brave jump from using the word concern to information gathering such as the taking of number plates and registration of vehicles.”