Owen Polley: Beattie’s unfortunate message to voters appalled by sea border

On Friday the 25th of March, two armed men hijacked a van in west Belfast. They placed an item in the vehicle and forced its driver to drive to an event that was attended by the Republic’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney.

UUP leader Doug Beattie launched his party’s manifesto last week at HMS Caroline in Belfast
UUP leader Doug Beattie launched his party’s manifesto last week at HMS Caroline in Belfast

The police blamed the incident - which was later declared a hoax - on loyalist paramilitaries.

It is unclear what they hoped to achieve through this action, which prompted a security alert and the evacuation of the venue.

Presumably, the perpetrators wanted to target the Irish minister who most enthusiastically and aggressively promoted the Northern Ireland Protocol. In fact, their actions caused another bout of unionist infighting and boosted a campaign to portray opponents of the protocol as extremists, who should be denied a platform in the media.

I’ve argued in this column before that, given the constitutional seriousness of the Irish Sea border, the response from unionists and loyalists has been remarkably moderate and proportionate. In fact, from the party political perspective, at times, it has been too weak.

There have been very few unlawful incidents in response to the Protocol and this was by far the most serious. Clearly, it was wrong and undermined the cause that it was (presumably) designed to help.

The Ulster Unionist party leader, Doug Beattie, quickly used the hijacking as a pretext to pull his party out of demonstrations against the protocol. He accused the rallies of “raising the temperature” in Northern Ireland and “harnessing anger” that was leading to a “resurgence in UVF activity”.

I am sympathetic to the UUP’s strategy of appealing to ‘liberal’ unionists and ‘others’ who are broadly happy with the status quo, as a way of extending unionism’s electoral reach and challenging the Alliance Party. I’m sorry to say, though, that, once again, Beattie’s message seemed confused and lacking in nuance.

The UUP leader may feel that rallies featuring marching bands and fiery speakers are out of step with the image he wants to project and you can understand that point of view. From the beginning, the UUP was coy about its involvement in the protests, preferring to talk about being there to ‘listen’ or ‘engage’ rather than participate.

These events are certainly not every Protocol opponent’s cup of tea. That said, it is a step further to accuse the organisers of raising temperatures on the streets or, even by implication, link their rallies with violence.

The ‘temperature’ in Northern Ireland is high primarily because the Province has been detached from the rest of the UK by a political and economic border that puts its constitutional future in doubt. When Beattie fails to acknowledge this fundamental fact, he risks underestimating the seriousness of the Protocol and strengthening the case of its supporters, who say that unionists are exaggerating the sea border’s effects.

At the party’s manifesto launch last week, the UUP leader pointed out that there will be no ‘united Ireland’ in his children’s lifetime. That may be true, but the absence of a ‘united Ireland’ is not the same as Northern Ireland getting to play a full role in the United Kingdom, or enjoying the same rights of participation as their fellow citizens on the mainland.

The Protocol, and the legal judgments that followed it, suggested that the Union can be eroded and diluted until it effectively becomes meaningless. That is why there is so much anger and resentment among unionists, including a reaction against the Belfast Agreement, which many thought protected their constitutional position.

Doug Beattie’s arguments imply that, either he doesn’t accept that the protocol is as serious as its more outspoken opponents allege, or that he thinks we should remain calm and relaxed about it regardless. To paraphrase the Alliance MP, Stephen Farry, perhaps he believes unionists should “take a chill pill” when it comes to the dismantlement of the Union with Great Britain.

Insinuating that anti-protocol rallies have contributed to violent incidents, like the hi-jacking in Belfast, also ignores the nature of extremism, which is driven by a sense of powerlessness.

The Protocol created anger that could easily spill over into violence more consistently, if it is not directed into something more constructive. Whatever you think of their content and effectiveness, there is a strong argument that the rallies and street protests at least provide an outlet for people’s frustration.

None of which is to say that UUP should not give the protests a miss if it feels they don’t match its image or that there are more fruitful avenues of combatting the protocol.

Beattie could have made that argument far more directly.

Instead, I fear he has made people who are genuinely appalled by the sea border feel that he is belittling their anger or accusing them of fomenting violence. That they are the problem rather than the Protocol.

And that’s an unfortunate message to send on the eve of an important election.