Ben Lowry: It is clear that Edwin Poots is not taking the DUP in a remotely hardline direction

The elevation of Edwin Poots to DUP leader was widely reported as a lurch to a hardline position by the party.

Saturday, 5th June 2021, 10:11 am
Updated Saturday, 5th June 2021, 4:30 pm
DUP leader Edwin Poots, right, with MLA Paul Givan, arriving at Government Buildings, Dublin, ahead of his meeting with Taoiseach Micheal Martin. They made clear they are not boycotting North South meetings. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Some of us have pointed out that Mr Poots has been pragmatic over the years, has worked easily with Sinn Fein, and was proud of the 2018 deal he struck with them over an Irish language act (but which the DUP as a whole declined to ratify).

As agriculture minister he did not refuse to implement Irish Sea border infrastructure.

Sure enough it is already clear that the new DUP leader is not taking the party in a remotely hardline direction.

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Boris Johnson at the DUP conference in 2018 where he specified that he would allow no regulatory or tariff Irish Sea border. He did this to undermine his leader Theresa May, but agreed both barriers when he got her job

On Thursday he met the Taoiseach Micheal Martin in Dublin accompanied by the man who is tipped to be First Minister of Northern Ireland, Paul Givan. Mr Poots told Good Morning Ulster yesterday that the DUP Five Point Plan against the Northern Ireland Protocol in February never included a boycott of North-South meetings.

The plan merely said that North-South relations would “be impacted”. Mr Poots has thus flagged up the anaemic nature of DUP opposition to a disastrous internal UK border that was imposed on unionists after three years of warnings from the great and the good of republican violence if so much as CCTV was put at the land border.

The current court action against the protocol summarises four core legal problems with it. These also confirm it to be a political outrage.

First, it is a breach of the consent principle of Belfast Agreement.

Arlene Foster outside Downing Street on Thursday May 20, where she met Boris Johnson, later joking that he thinks he is "Isambard Kingdom Brunel". Imagine a unionist leader even meeting Margaret Thatcher after the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement, let alone engaging in warm banter

Second, it has been arranged specifically to remove cross-community safeguards (imagine the transatlantic uproar if cross-community protection was removed in a matter of concern to nationalists).

Third, it breaches the basic right to have a say in laws that govern you.

Above all, it is a partial repeal of the foundational document of the United Kingdom, the Act of Union.

Agreements can be torn up and the British constitution undermined, yet if unionists dare to retreat from North-South there are howls of protest about the ministerial code and warnings about the consequent fall of Stormont.

The Belfast Agreement's approach to consent and cross-community approval can be torn up the foundational document of the UK, the Act of Union, repealed yet if unionists retreat from North-South bodies there are howls of protest and warnings of the fall of Stormont

Boris Johnson in 2018 came to Belfast to specify to the DUP he would allow no regulatory or tariff Irish Sea border. He did this to undermine his leader Theresa May, but agreed both when he got her job.

Yet as recently as last Saturday Arlene Foster told the Financial Times about meeting Mr Johnson days earlier, when he talked of his Scotland bridge plan. “He told me last Thursday that he was talking to the engineers in the afternoon. He wants to be Isambard Kingdom Brunel!” she reportedly said.

Imagine a unionist leader even meeting Margaret Thatcher after the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement, let alone engaging in warm banter.

I hope, when the laughs subsided, that Mrs Foster treated the prime minister icily.

Doug Beattie says Ben Lowry misinterpreted what he said on Radio Ulster about the NHS and and an Irish Sea border. Ben Lowry says his interpretation of what he said was "entirely reasonable"

With hindsight the DUP should have toppled the Tory government in 2018, when it was failing to follow through on paragraph 50 of the 2017 backstop, which had been inserted to placate unionists and prevent an Irish Sea border. Pulling the plug was no easy option — it ran the risk of leading on to later revenge from the Tories —but continuing to prop them up also failed.

After the referendum I advocated a UK-wide soft Norway exit, yet I can see why the DUP, seeking allies, aligned themselves with Tory Brexiteers. But the tactic did not work.

No Tory MP joined the DUP against the 2019 protocol. Now, too late, Brexiteers claim to be concerned about NI.

The European Commissioner Mairead McGuinness told UTV on Tuesday that the protocol, far from being scrapped, needs to be fully implemented (Brussels was given succour in this demand by anti Brexit political NI parties). Simon Coveney said similar yesterday.

When Sam McBride wrote here (see link below) that a drug had not been approved by the EU for a certain cancer use in NI, a host of critics including NI business leaders implied he had got it wrong and that the drug was available. But they were confusing the fact that there were in this case other routes to availability of the drug with approval of it.

The story was an alarming foretaste of EU power over the administration of drugs in Northern Ireland.

Yet the DUP-UUP are spurning radical political resistance to these and other barriers.

Mr Poots is also saying last year’s NDNA deal to restore Stormont had no Irish language act (ILA), just a cultural one. Yet everyone long ago saw that it is an ILA in all but name.

Sinn Fein must be rubbing their eyes in disbelief. After a century in which there was minimal progress towards republican goals, they suddenly get two leaps forward, on the Irish language and Act of Union.

And it seems only Jim Allister QC is in total opposition to it all,

• If I have misunderstood unionist priorities, fine, but tell me how

Last week on this page (see link below) I said that Arlene Foster, Edwin Poots and Jeffrey Donaldson all seemed equally pragmatic on the Irish Sea border.

Then I wrote: “Doug Beattie said on Good Morning Ulster this week that the NHS was more important than the protocol. Why keep unionist in the title of his party if so?”

Yesterday I said similar in a tweet, adding that Paul Givan, by moving a radio discussion on to waiting lists, seemed also to be putting NHS before protocol.

Mr Beattie tweeted in public reply: “Ben you misrepresented me in your article, I let it go because I thought it was just for brevity, you are misrepresenting me now deliberately. I will accept you might not understand main effort, priority, specified and implied tasks.”

If I misinterpreted what he said on GMU on May 27, I am happy to set the record straight. But I did not “deliberately misrepresent” him. My interpretation of what he said was entirely reasonable.

Chris Buckler, the presenter, had asked the UUP leader: “Let’s start by asking a question we asked the DUP earlier. Because you are coming in as leader, what is your priority whenever you get into that position? Is it to scrap or sort out the Northern Ireland Protocol or is it to deal with the health service that we have been talking about all morning?”

Doug Beattie replied: “Well, well I can be absolutely clear on this, um, Chris, it is not — my priority is not to deal with my party, that will be dealt in due course. My, my priorities will be to deal with all of the issues that are facing us now, and absolutely health is the top of that list.

“The protocol must be dealt with, we will deal with it, but if we do not sort health we are going to allow our citizens to die, or to remain sick so that has to be everybody’s priority.

“I can’t see any political ... [Mr Beattie’s words are briefly unclear at this point] ... see [ing?] health as being at the very top of their priority now as we speak, and we can do this if we all stay united and looking at health.”

If Mr Beattie, Poots or Givan want to write a piece clarifying their priorities, we will publish it.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

Other articles by Ben Lowry below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter:

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