19 July 2021

Q&A: Northern Ireland, Brexit, the NI Protocol and the impact on PCS members

Tensions in Northern Ireland are having a significant impact on PCS members who work there in Border Force and Revenue and Customs. 

Tensions in Northern Ireland are having a significant impact on PCS members who work there in Border Force and Revenue and Customs. With the help of PCS colleagues in Northern Ireland, we explain the issues behind it and what the union is doing to support members

Q: What’s the issue at Northern Ireland ports?

Since the Brexit transition period ended on 31 December 2020, there have been political and community tensions at the Northern Ireland (NI) ports of Larne and Belfast, as well as in other towns and cities. Some, but not all, of this is attributed to the consequences of Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP).

The NIP, which the UK agreed with the EU, was part of the Brexit exit deal. It determines what goods need to be checked when they’re brought from Great Britain to NI, resulting in the ‘Irish sea border’. NI remains in the EU single market for goods, so products being moved from GB undergo EU import procedures. The NIP was agreed in order to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, as the Republic of Ireland remains in the EU.

Issues have included graffiti condemning the import checks – including explicit remarks that border staff are “targets” – rioting in a number of towns and cities, protests involving masked men, concerning social media commentary, and other claims of intimidating behaviour towards frontier workers. As a result of some of this, the Brexit checks were temporarily suspended in February.

The rhetoric being used has at times been severe, for example with the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) – an umbrella group that includes representatives of loyalist paramilitaries – saying it cannot rule out violence in its fight to get rid of the NIP and warning of a “summer of chaos”.

Q: How is this affecting PCS members?

We have almost 2,000 members who live and work in NI. Many are impacted by protests and civil unrest. However, threats of violence against border workers directly affects our members in Border Force and Revenue and Customs.

While there may have been some debate about what constitutes a ‘credible threat’ and who is behind it, the trade unions’ position is that a threat is a threat, and it’s the impact of that threat and how it makes people feel that matters.

This issue also affects our colleagues in the NI civil service who are covered by the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance union (NIPSA). NIPSA has also condemned the threats and called for them to be immediately lifted “so that staff can go to work safely and without concern for their safety and the safety of their families.”

Q: What’s it like to live and work in this atmosphere?

People find it incredibly intimidating. It has been reported that a border worker had to move out of their home and be rehoused in a safe place.

A significant number of PCS Border Force members worked during the Troubles, when check points were attacked, bombed and shot at, and there were a number of deaths. Some of our members were in their posts when the IRA walked in and pointed a gun in their face and walked out.

A lot of our members are deeply troubled or damaged by that and some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Even just the threats and seeing that graffiti on the wall can really trigger people and make them feel incredibly fearful.

When there is civil unrest and protests, it can cause problems travelling to and from work for many of our members. Public transport can be suspended at short notice or roads may be blocked.

Traditionally, July is associated with Loyal Orders marching throughout NI. This is also the Centenary year of the creation of NI as a state. Add to this the protests against the NIP from some within the PUL (Protestant unionist loyalist) community, there is growing concern that tensions will increase.

We also have members who live alongside peace lines and interface areas, where people from the two major communities are separated by a variety of separation barriers. Sectarian attacks and riots can cause major stress to our members, who then have to go to work, often with little sleep, feeling tired and anxious. While the majority are in Belfast, they can also be found in other towns and cities.

The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) 1998 brought a relative peace to NI. Everyone living and working in NI has been affected by the Troubles to a greater or lesser extent. People are impacted now by their legacy. Our members come from different backgrounds and will have different religious and political views, and none. We all agree that there can be no going back and no return to violence.

Our union has a zero tolerance policy on sectarianism.

Q: What has the union said and done about it?

Members have been coming to the union with their concerns which, in some cases, they said they didn’t feel were being addressed by management.

When the graffiti situation escalated in January, PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka said: “No worker should be threatened or targeted for doing their job. There is no place for this kind of sectarian intimidation in our society. The health and safety of our members is paramount.”

PCS has written to the permanent secretaries of HMRC, Home Office (Border Force) and Ministry of Defence, raising members’ concerns.

Reps and union officers have held discussions with local management about solutions such as flexible starting/finishing hours, carrying out proper health and safety risk assessments, and enabling working from home wherever possible.

The union conducted a survey of members and received a good response (see below).

PCS is fully aware of members’ concerns and is continuing to work to address them.

Survey of PCS members in NI

Of 130 respondents:

  • 22 do not feel safe either at work or working from home, due to the recent unrest and threats
  • 91 do not feel safe going to and from work while protests and riots are happening
  • 100 said they were concerned about the unrest and threats against workers
  • 98 said their employer had not given any health and safety or security advice to staff in relation to the recent situation
  • 125 said they agreed with PCS raising these issues with the employer and working on suitable solutions.