Call for probe into Port staff issue is rejected

Dessie Blackadder

Reporter:

Dessie Blackadder

A proposal to hold an independent investigation into the decision to remove council staff from post-Brexit checks at Larne Port has been rejected by more than two to one at Mid and East Antrim Council.

On Monday evening, Alliance representatives asked for calling for a probe into "apparent discrepancies around information provided" before the council unanimously decided to withdraw the staff at the start of this month.

However, the proposal to hold an investigation was defeated by 26 votes to 11.

There was one abstention.

Leading for Alliance on the motion, Cllr. Danny Donnelly said a clear timeline of events and communcation that led to the information the council was given was needed.

He added: “The decision we took has clearly had serious consequences. This is about the integrity of council we all serve in. This is not a personal attack, a politically motivated campaign or a political football. If there is nothing to hide, there is nothing to fear.”

But DUP councillor William McCaughey said he would still come to the same decision as he did on February 1, ‘even with hindsight’.

He contended: “Police activity still prevails around the port. That alone indicates to me that this chamber took the right decision for the right reasons. Did the EU not remove their employees on the same information at the same time as we did? I am mystified at the reason behind this motion.”

An amendment, tabled by councillor Keith Turner (UUP), to delay any council probe until a Stormont investigation into the suspension of checks at Larne and Belfast Port by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has finished was defeated by 20 votes to 19.

At one point, the mayor, Cllr. Peter Johnston , was asked by Alliance councillor Gerardine Mulvenna to excuse himself from the chair citing concerns on his impartiality on the subject.

Cllr. Johnston slammed the Alliance Party’s decision to wait until the meeting to raise these concerns and question his credibility in the media.He accused Alliance of playing a "game of political football".

"The Alliance Party have tried to over the past two weeks to bring this chamber and this council into disrepute. This is just again the last of another string of acts in order to do that."

Mr Johnston said Alliance's airing of criticisms in the media were "not fair on our staff and it certainly has not done any favours for their safety over the past two weeks".

But

Sinn Fein councillor James McKeown backed the motion.

He said: "I would ask where this information came from and how it was verified given that both the trade unions and PSNI have contradicted their statements?"

SDLP councillor Eugene Reid said staff at Larne Port ‘had been used as pawns in this process.’

“I would go as far as to say that we as group party leaders were used as pawns also in a silly political game that has backfired, and backfired dramatically."

DUP councillor Billy Ashe defended the chief executive and accused others of scapegoating.

He added: "None of the speakers this evening have answered why they did not ask more questions before voting."

TUV councillor Timothy Gaston described the debate as a "sideshow".

He said: "This charade tonight is to cover the Alliance Party's shame in calling for the rigorous implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol."

The special meeting came ahead of a party group leaders' meeting to be held on Wednesday without the DUP.

The party withdrew participation from the meetings almost a fortnight ago, citing concerns about leaks to the media.

The meeting has been twice delayed since then.

After the meeting, Alliance Councillor Danny Donnelly said the decision was "a disappointing day for openness and transparency, not just for Mid and East Antrim, but across Northern Ireland".

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