Doug Beattie: Unionism must fight NI’s corner, not go off in a huff

At times leadership is about telling people not just what they want to hear but what they need to hear. That is where we find ourselves with the Northern Ireland Protocol.

By Doug Beattie
Friday, 25th March 2022, 10:56 am
The Protocol was the result of a Tory government that cared little for this Province and wanted a deal with the EU at any cost, says the UUP leader
The Protocol was the result of a Tory government that cared little for this Province and wanted a deal with the EU at any cost, says the UUP leader

Rehearsing the Ulster Unionist Party warning of how destabilising Brexit would be, or indeed our warning about the implementation of the protocol as far back as 2019, is pointless as they have all fallen on deaf ears. Instead the protocol has now become an election slogan in the same way Brexit was an election slogan.

‘Smash the protocol’ – full stop, ‘bin the protocol’ – full stop, ‘end the protocol’ – full stop. The problem with this approach is that it is always a full stop, there is never anything to follow on, nothing to say how we will smash it, bin it, end it.

Yet those of us who advocate a way or dealing with the protocol are used as a scapegoat as to why the protocol exists in the first place. So this is the first uncomfortable truth.

UUP leader Doug Beattie

The protocol came about because a Conservative government cared little for the people of Northern Ireland and wanted a deal with the EU at any cost. Their rationale being they could change it at a later stage and the gullible, too-used-to-the-Westminster-champagne-receptions, fell for it hook line and sinker.

The second uncomfortable truth is that some unionists actually aided the Conservatives in this endeavour. From the initial reaction to it being a ‘serious and sensible proposal’ on 2nd October 2019, to the infamous comment in March 2020 that customs posts at ports in Larne and Belfast would not affect our sovereignty. That was followed by the ‘best of both worlds’ comment, then a failure to act until an election was looming and an election slogan could be formed.

Of course none of this was done or said by the Ulster Unionist Party. However, when people want someone to blame, it becomes a case of let’s blame the ones who don’t conform, who won’t allow themselves to be manipulated, who saw this coming and who warned of the consequences of the actions of others but were ignored, who look at problems through a strategic eye and not an election slogan. Let’s blame those who try to find solutions to the problem and add something of value instead of just the ‘full stop’.

Recent geopolitical events in Ukraine are changing the world order and with it the relationship between the UK and the EU. To say we can cooperate on high risk strategies around a conflict that could see Europe descend into flames but can’t sort out getting a bottle of olive oil from GB to NI without checks is simply untenable. To allow, and rightly so, thousands of Ukrainian refugees to move freely throughout Europe and then say the protection of the EU Single Market is in danger from goods moving from GB to NI no longer makes sense.

Therefore many issues and concerns around the protocol will inevitably change and evolve. Perhaps slowly at first, but they will pick up a head of steam. In the wider scheme of things they are just not as important now as they may once have been. Therefore the Ulster Unionists’ position of remaining in the arena, fighting the corner for Northern Ireland, makes more sense than those who are intent on just stuffing their hands in their pockets, turning to the corners and huffing.

Yet in truth this has become about more than just the protocol. This is an attempt to reignite the opposition the Belfast Agreement, but yet again, as with the protocol, there is no alternative given nor vision for the future - just a slogan.

Northern Ireland’s place in the Union is safe. There will be no United Ireland in my lifetime or in my children’s lifetime unless unionists do what some seem intent on doing - alienating the very people who will decide our future. In keeping the institutions running we are offering and providing hope for the people, a chance that things can get better, that we can work together, that their future and their children’s future is secure. Take away that hope then what have they got? What is the point in voting to stay in a devolved part of the UK without devolution? The danger is that the very people who are the backbone of Northern Ireland will no longer see it as a viable option.

I am a unionist, I believe in the Union in its widest sense. A United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland working in the best interests of all its people. Some will say I am swimming against the current but those same people have nothing to add beyond the ‘full stop’.

If I am wrong what has unionism lost? Those who want to will be able to revert back to that negative, angry, inward looking mind-set promoted by some if they wish. But if I am right, then unionism will emerge as a confident, positive, optimistic movement promoting a Union for all, working for all, in the best interests of all. A revitalised unionism no longer held back by fear promoted by those thirsty for power at any cost. Just think what that could achieve!

Doug Beattie is leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and an MLA for Upper Bann.

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