Hauliers are bracing themselves for more delays at Northern Ireland’s ports after Brexit checks on animal and food products were suspended at both Belfast and Larne ports this week following threats to customs staff.

Twelve staff have been removed from Larne Port “with immediate effect”, following “an upsurge in sinister and menacing behaviour in recent weeks”, according to Mid and East Antrim Borough Council .

A spokesman for Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) said it has temporarily suspended physical inspections of products of animal origin at both Larne and Belfast in the interest of the well-being of staff “on the basis of information received.”

He added: “The situation will be kept under review and in the meantime full documentary checks will continue to be carried out as usual.”

Police confirmed they have increased patrols at Larne and other ports in order to reassure staff and the local community.

This latest incident follows the discovery last week of graffiti near the Port of Larne which said: “All border staff are targets”, reflecting rising tensions in loyalist communities in Northern Ireland at the existence of Brexit border controls between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.

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Customs staff also reported seeing individuals taking down their number plate details.

Antrim mayor Peter Johnston said: “We have seen what I would describe as deeply troubling graffiti and a very notable upping of community tensions towards the NI protocol, particularly in recent days.

“The health and wellbeing of our staff is always this council’s number one priority and that is why the decision has been taken to withdraw them from their work at the port with immediate effect until we have very real assurances and full confidence that they can go about their duties without fear, threat or concern for their wellbeing.”

RHA policy MD Rod McKenzie said: “Clearly inbuilt issues are coming to the fore, which were not properly addressed when the Brexit deal was negotiated.

“It needs to be sorted out with sensitivity and it highlights the inherent nature of the problem hauliers are facing.

“We condemn any threats against any staff carrying out their duties but they have been put in this position by politicians and their negotiations and politicians need to sort this out urgently.”