Mid and East Antrim council postpones party leaders’ meeting for second time

A council facing questions over a decision to withdraw port staff conducting Brexit checks has postponed a party group leaders’ meeting for a second time.

Mid and East Antrim Borough Council’s chief executive last week cancelled a Group Party Leaders (GPL) meeting after the DUP withdrew its participation.

The council later said a GPL meeting would take place this week after other parties questioned the cancellation, but it has been postponed again until Wednesday.

A special council meeting is scheduled for Monday as councillors seek an independent probe into the temporary removal of staff from Larne Port earlier this month.

It followed safety concerns after the discovery of menacing graffiti, but questions have been raised about the move after police said there was no evidence of “credible threats”.

Stormont’s agriculture department also pulled staff from Larne and Belfast ports following Mid and East Antrim’s decision. Workers have since returned to inspection duties.

Alliance Party councillor Danny Donnelly said the calling of a special meeting had received cross-party support.

He said it was important to independently examine the information which led to councillors unanimously backing a withdrawal of port staff.

DUP councillor Gregg McKeen accused Alliance of “shameful politicking” and said the decision to remove staff was in the interests of safety.

The council has been operating emergency procedures during the coronavirus pandemic in which some decision-making has been delegated to senior officials who consult with party group leaders.

GPL meetings have been described as a “sounding board” for discussions between party group leaders and council chief executive Anne Donaghy.

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The DUP said it withdrew from the meetings due to concerns about leaks to the media.

Last week, a Sinn Fein councillor said that before the decision to withdraw staff, Ms Donaghy had told party group leaders the UDA was involved in threats.

The PSNI has said there is no evidence of loyalist paramilitary involvement.

Trade unions also disputed a public statement by the council’s mayor, DUP councillor Peter Johnston, which claimed unions had raised concerns about apparent attempts to record vehicle registration plates.

Mr Johnston initially rebuffed as a “side point” calls to retract the statement, but the council later issued a clarification.

Asked about the delay in GPL meetings, a council spokesman said: “The GPL will meet on Wednesday.”

Stormont’s agriculture committee is to hold an inquiry into the department’s decision to withdraw staff.

Sinn Fein MLA Philip McGuigan claimed the removal of staff was a “calculated and concocted political decision by a DUP minister”, but DUP members on the committee said the safety of staff was paramount.

The DUP has been calling for the scrapping of the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol, which imposes checks on trade from Britain but keeps the land border open with the Irish Republic.

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