Two men charged with painting graffiti condemning Irish Sea border checks in a Northern Ireland port town have been granted bail.
Mechanic William Donnell, 21, and farm labourer Mitchell Leeburn, 25, appeared at Coleraine Magistrates’ Court on Monday.
Donnell, from Belfast Road in Larne, and Leeburn, from Deerpark Road, Kilwaughter, both face eight counts of criminal damage and a further count of possessing an article, namely spray paint, with intent to damage property.
All the alleged offences occurred in Larne on Saturday.
The charges relate to graffiti at a variety of locations in the town, including on several retail outlets, Northern Ireland Housing Executive properties, a Roads Service road sign, a number of walls and a billboard.
Police had objected to bail on the grounds the two accused could commit offences if released.
District Judge Peter King granted bail with several conditions attached, including a night-time curfew and a prohibition on entering Larne town centre.
The accused, who appeared via video-link from a PSNI station in Antrim, having been in custody since Saturday, spoke only briefly to confirm they understood the charges.
Inspections on animal-based food produce arriving at Belfast and Larne ports were suspended last Monday amid concerns over the safety of staff.
That came after separate graffiti threatening port staff appeared last month.
Officials from Mid and East Antrim Council, Stormont’s Department of Agriculture and the EU Commission all stopped working at the facilities, which carry out checks required as part of Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.
Environmental health staff from Mid and East Antrim Council returned to their duties at Larne Port on Friday. It has not been confirmed when the other officials, who work at both Larne and Belfast, might return to work.
On Monday, the council announced that work by staff and contractors to clean up graffiti in the borough had been suspended after “alleged incidents” over the weekend. Council officials have asked the PSNI to carry out a threat assessment before clean up works resume.
In court on Monday, a detective constable told Judge King he could connect the men accused of Saturday’s graffiti spree to the charges.
The officer said the PSNI was opposing bail amid concerns the pair could commit offences if released.
“There’s been 22 incidents of criminal damage in relation to the EU exit in Northern Ireland since the 1st of January this year,” he said.
He referred to the “political fallout” since Brexit.
“There has been heightened tensions in the area of Larne that has resulted in checks in Larne being stopped due to the perceived threat,” he said.
The judge made clear there was no evidence before court that the two accused had anything to do with those threats.
“The height of the allegations at this stage against Leeburn and Donnell is that they graffitied,” he said.
The officer said there had been eight separate incidents of graffiti in one night and the only reason the perpetrators stopped was because “police chased them”.
The detective constable said the graffiti included “target signs”.
Barrister Aaron Thompson, representing the two accused, suggested the target sign was painted by altering the vowel “O” within a word.
The judge responded: “I think it’s slightly beyond that – it’s a separate character as opposed to a vowel inside the graffiti.”
The judge said police had provided him with an album of images of the graffiti, adding that the slogans included “All bets are off”, “Larne says no to Irish Sea border”, “We do not support the Irish Sea border” and other variations on the same theme.
Mr Thompson said Donnell had offered an explanation to police as to why spray paint had been found in his car when it was searched by officers.
“He’s a mechanic and he said it wouldn’t be in any way unusual for him to have access to spray paint and he’s denied the matters,” he said.
Bail was set at £500 for each accused.
Conditions included a prohibition on contacting witnesses and their co-accused.
They will be electronically tagged, cannot encroach into Larne’s 40mph speed limit zone, and must stay at home from 8pm to 7am.
Both men were granted legal aid.
The case will be heard again at Ballymena Magistrates’ Court on March 25.