Owen Polley: Unionists must stay united against the disgraceful Northern Ireland Protocol

To coincide with the anniversary of ‘Ulster Day’, when many of our forefathers signed the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant in 1912, four of Northern Ireland’s unionist parties published a joint declaration this week, affirming their opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Saturday, 2nd October 2021, 2:24 pm
Updated Monday, 4th October 2021, 3:39 pm
Jeffrey Donaldson, Billy Hutchinson, Doug Beattie, Jim Allister at Stormont for their joint statement against the Northern Ireland Protocol. For all their differences, the DUP, PUP, UUP and TUV can and should jointly oppose a constitutional threat

This was a sensible and appropriate initiative.

There are serious differences of opinion between the DUP, the UUP, the TUV and the PUP when it comes to policy, economics and social issues, but there is no reason that they cannot come together to oppose a blatant threat to Northern Ireland’s constitutional position.

Unionism is supposed to be about strengthening and promoting our place in the UK, irrespective of disagreements about everyday politics.

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The disgraceful protocol is undoubtedly the biggest blow to the Union since the Anglo-Irish Agreement at least. But, arguably, the Home Rule crisis of 1912-14 was the last time that unionists’ British rights and freedoms were challenged so seriously.

The original covenant demanded the protection of our “cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom”, after the Liberal government tried to impose an all-Ireland parliament on unionists. It is that ideal of “equal citizenship” that is again under attack, because the protocol puts Northern Ireland on a different political and economic footing to the rest of the country.

Just days before the Declaration, the DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson warned that Sinn Fein could top the poll at the next assembly election, if the unionist vote fragmented. He spoke about working with the UUP and the TUV to “return as many pro-Union, anti-Protocol MLAs as possible.” Doug Beattie, the Ulster Unionist leader, responded saying “there will be no pacts” between the UUP and other unionists.

You can understand his defensiveness. Ever since the St Andrews Agreement of 2006, when the law was changed so that the biggest party, rather than the largest designation, would take the first minister’s position at Stormont, the DUP has fended off possible opposition by raising the spectre of a Sinn Fein first minister.

In this case, though, Donaldson was not demanding a pact. The Northern Ireland Assembly is elected using the proportional Single Transferable Vote system. Unionists can ask their supporters to favour other pro-Union candidates with lower order preferences, so that votes are transferred between the anti-protocol parties. This kind of arrangement has been widespread before and created little controversy.

It is particularly important to maximise the unionist vote this time, for two reasons.

Firstly, if unionists perform poorly in the next election, which is due in spring (unless Stormont collapses first), nationalists and the Alliance Party will claim voters have endorsed the sea border that divides up the UK.

Secondly, if it is still in place by December 2024, which is within the expected lifetime of the next assembly, MLAs will get to vote on whether to renew or withdraw from important aspects of the protocol.

Doug Beattie’s party wants to distance itself from the DUP, which he claims offers “a backward, protectionist, power-driven vision focused on self-preservation”.

He thinks the UUP should become a modern, liberal alternative to unionist rivals who have struggled to come to terms with social change. That is a defensible analysis, even if it is not, by itself, a prospectus for better government in Northern Ireland.

The UUP also wants the electorate to blame the DUP for the protocol. This is based on some allegations that are fair and some assumptions that are not so reasonable.

The DUP certainly failed to use its influence in parliament to shape a favourable Brexit outcome for NI. And, despite the party’s recent attempts to claim otherwise (see Lord Dodds letter below), its then leader described a plan by Boris Johnson, which featured a regulatory border between GB and NI but not a customs border, as “a serious and sensible way forward”.

On the other hand, the DUP consistently repeated that its only ‘red line’ for an agreement with the EU was that NI should be treated the same as the rest of the UK. It did not vote for such a deal because Britain was never offered one. And it is difficult, even contradictory, for any unionist to deny that the party was perfectly within its rights to campaign for Brexit in a nationwide referendum and expect the result to apply equally to Northern Ireland.

Of course, there are serious and legitimate disagreements between the DUP, the UUP and the TUV over political issues and social attitudes. It’s also fair to say, though, that in Northern Ireland debates about policy are so impoverished that the differences between parties are often more about presentation than substance.

Unionism is certainly stronger when it can appeal to a wide range of voters who share a commitment to the Union but may have starkly different views on everything else. However, unionists cannot escape the fact that the protocol is the biggest threat to NI’s place in the UK for decades and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Some years ago, there was a valid argument that constitutional issues could be parked for the time being, but that is resoundingly not the case now.

The unionist parties are as one in their opposition to anything that divides this province socially, politically or economically from the rest of the UK. They must make sure that there continues to be no doubt about this point, even while the assembly elections approach.

• Other articles by Owen Polley below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter

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