EU officials are being withdrawn from ports in Northern Ireland following threats to staff from loyalists, in a further blow to the Brexit deal.
Brussels said it was adopting the stance taken by local councils, warning: “We have asked them not to attend their duties today and we will continue to monitor the situation.”
UK food inspections were suddenly suspended at Belfast and Larne ports following an “upsurge in sinister and menacing behaviour in recent weeks”.
Graffiti has appeared attacking the impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol – which has created a customs border in the Irish Sea – and describing port staff as “targets”.
Two loyalist paramilitary groups present a “real and significant threat” in the area, a former Northern Ireland police chief is warning.
The European Commission’s spokesperson, said: “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.”
In the Commons, Michael Gove blamed the EU for planning to trigger Article 16 to suspend part of the Northern Ireland Protocol, telling MPs: “Trust has been eroded.”
And he criticised British businesses warning the mountain of new red tape and extra costs created by Brexit could force them to pull out of supplying Northern Ireland altogether.
“They have an obligation to ensure that their goods are available for the citizens in Northern Ireland,” the Cabinet Office minister claimed.
But Simon Hoare, the Conservative chair of the Commons Northern Ireland Committee, warned the window for resolving the huge trade problems in the Irish Sea was “small and shrinking”.
Haulage firms have hiked prices by 12 per cent this week and hospitals, schools and prisons have warned of looming problems obtaining food supplies.
And there are growing fears that the situation will worsen when ‘grace periods’ to limit supermarkets’ paperwork and to allow processed foods end, in April and July respectively.
Stephen Farry, an Alliance MP, revealed his constituency office had been vandalised overnight, urging people “to dial down the rhetoric”.
The graffiti reads ‘RIP GFA’ – referring to the landmark Good Friday Agreement, which formally ended decades of bloodshed in Ireland, in 1998.
Mr Gove revealed the UK wanted those grace periods extended – despite Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, saying no decision had been taken.
He set the scene for possible future conflict with Brussels by suggesting “revisiting the operation of aspects of the Protocol”, part of the 2019 withdrawal deal.
And he said Boris Johnson had been “absolutely right to say that Article 16 can be invoked”, providing that was as “an emergency port of call”.