DUP chief Sir Jeffrey Donaldson on Conservative conference: I will take nothing on trust from Tories

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson says he will take nothing “on trust” from the Tories when he visits the party’s annual conference in Manchester this weekend.

Saturday, 2nd October 2021, 4:00 am
Updated Saturday, 2nd October 2021, 10:39 pm

The DUP leader set out his plans to the News Letter ahead of Sunday – the first of three days of Conservative speeches, debates and functions.

He said if the government ignores his demands on the Protocol, but still rams through a “culture package” at the end of the month – basically imposing an Irish language act on Northern Ireland from Westminster – then there will be “severe consequences” at Stormont.

And if the political route fails altogether, Sir Jeffrey indicated that an upsurge in street protests is likely.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

He said the main Protocol-related event will be a gathering at Manchester Art Gallery just after noon on Monday, when he will join fellow speakers David Trimble, Kate Hoey, and the leaders of the UUP and TUV – with the whole event being chaired by PR man and ex-Ulster Unionist MP David Burnside.

Back on September 9, Sir Jeffrey gave a speech saying that “within weeks it will be clear if there is the basis for the Assembly and Executive to continue”.

Then on Tuesday this week, the DUP, UUP, TUV and PUP issued what they called a “joint unionist declaration in opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol”.

The statement consisted of a single paragraph, as follows:

“We the undersigned Unionist political leaders affirm our opposition to the NI Protocol, its mechanisms and structures, and reaffirm our unalterable position that the protocol must be rejected and replaced by arrangements which fully respect NI’s position as a constituent and integral part of the UK”.

In July, after having initially refused to accept that there were significant problems in shipping goods to and from Northern Ireland and Great Britain, Boris Johnson produced a ‘command paper’ admitting that the Protocol was “not working well”.

The paper said that things had reached a point where “the circumstances exist to justify using Article 16”.

Article 16 is a key segment in the Protocol agreement, which allows the UK to basically rip up the Protocol if it is seen to be causing “serious societal and economic difficulties [which are] liable to persist, or where diversion of trade is borne out in practice”.

Asked if he is expecting any announcement from the government about Article 16 at the conference, Sir Jeffrey said: “No, we’ve been given no indication at this stage of that happening.

“That’s one of the reasons we want to engage with the government – to find out where they are going with this... and in what circumstance will they be willing to trigger article 16.”

Given the sense of betrayal many unionists feel towards the Tories, Sir Jeffrey was asked if Mr Johnson’s party could be trusted to follow through with any assurances it makes.

“Our view is that we’re not taking anything on trust,” he said. “We want to see action by the government, following through on the commitments previously given.”

As to what the next steps might be, he said: “We’ve already withdrawn from the North-South Ministerial Council, and we’ve made clear that if the government does not act within a reasonable period then obviously that leaves our position in ministerial office unsustainable.

“We’re looking to the next few weeks to see what action the government takes. but we’re very clear time is of the essence, and we need to see firm action.”

In terms of an actual timetable, he added: “I did say at the time that if we reach the end of October and the government is introducing legislation on a culture package that includes proposals on the Irish language – and haven’t honoured the commitment they gave in New Decade New Approach to restore NI’s place within the UK internal market – obviously that will have severe consequences for the sustainability for the political institutions.”

The Tories pledged during the summer that they will enforce such a “cultural package” by the end of October if Stormont does not do it first – much in the same way that they did with abortion relaxations and gay marriage.

Regarding what may happen if the Protocol persists despite the DUP’s efforts, Sir Jeffrey said: “I have warned that if the government doesn’t act within a reasonable period, then I think others will want to revert to street protest.”

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