DUP leader: We unionists all reject the Northern Ireland Protocol, and it needs to be repudiated
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has set out perhaps the DUP’s toughest yet position against the Irish Sea border.
Speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative conference in Manchester, the leader of what is still the biggest unionist party in terms of elected representatives, joined the other two unionist leaders against the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Sir Jeffrey warned Boris Johnson’s government that the trade barrier between NI and Great Britain needs to be removed “for the future of the Union”.
The News Letter asked Sir Jeffrey and his UUP and TUV counterparts Doug Beattie and Jim Allister if they would be satisfied if London’s ‘command paper’ in July – to overhaul the protocol but not remove it – was agreed by the EU, and Sir Jeffrey implied that that document was only a starting point toward scrapping the border.
Sir Jeffrey replied: “The three unionist leaders along with the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party signed a declaration last week and the words we used were repudiate. That is very clear and all of us stand on that.”
He said that “what comes after that ... must respect Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom and it must restore our place within the United Kingdom internal market and it must ensure that we are not subject to foreign laws and a foreign court”.
Sir Jeffrey told the event at Manchester Art Gallery, near to the main Conservative conference hall: “On this, we are absolutely united.”
The government command paper on the Northern Ireland Protocol was an “indication of the direction of travel” but was not “a panacea” he said.
The parties welcomed “what it has to say about removing the jurisdiction of European Court of Justice from Northern Ireland, we welcome what it has to say about restoring Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market, and in particular we welcome what it has to say that the protocol being not sustainable. All of these things are good”.
Mr Allister said that the command paper criticising the protocol is “good as far as it goes”.
But he said that the government’s position is “premised that there has been trade disparity and disruption and difference between Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.
Yet, he added, next week the government will argue against their joint unionist legal challenge to the protocol and will say that a lower court “erred in law in finding that Great Britain and Northern Ireland are not on an equal footing in relation to trade, the very basis of the command paper that we have lost equal footing!”
He said: “Which way is the Conservative and unionist government facing?”
He added: “If they had wit they’d realise the best thing that could happen to them is if we won our case then they would have real leverage with the EU.”
The former Ulster Unionist Party leader Lord Trimble told the audience that the protocol “hollowed out” the Belfast Agreement he helped to secure in 1998.
He said that the EU will not agree to changes, and unionists have to “consider how we go forward”. He said that “we need more than the protocol to go, we have to repudiate the entire arrangements that are there ... there are times when governments need to repudiate agreements which they have made which don’t work”.
Earlier, Sir Jeffrey met with the prime minister where he reiterated his call for action by the government on the Irish Sea border within weeks.
The protocol was agreed by the UK and EU to maintain a free-flowing Irish land border after Brexit. It has led to additional checks on goods arriving in the Province from the rest of the UK.
Last month, Sir Jeffrey threatened to collapse the power-sharing institutions at Stormont if his demands on the protocol were not met.
He told the Manchester fringe event: “We simply cannot allow this situation to continue. And we need to see action taken by the government within weeks.
“What we need now is to move beyond the words of the command paper published in July which were good and provided a road map for a way forward. We need action.
“We need the government to sit up, and to take action to remove this Irish Sea border, remove the barriers to trade within the United Kingdom, and fundamentally to restore Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market.
“At the heart of this is the future of the Union itself.”
On his threat to collapse Stormont, Sir Jeffrey said: “I cannot sustain a situation where we are required to use the political institutions in Northern Ireland to implement the protocol that is designed to undermine our place within the Union.”
He said if need be he would put the matter to voters.
Earlier, Brexit minister Lord Frost told the conference (see below) that Britain might trigger Article 16, which suspends the protocol.
Sir Jeffrey responded: “Triggering Article 16 has its use in the short term, but what we require in order to restore Northern Ireland’s place fully within the United Kingdom is UK legislation.”
The event was organised by the former UUP MP David Burnside, and was also addressed by the Ulster-born ex-Labour MP, Baroness Hoey.
Mr Beattie told the fringe event that he did not agree with the threat to bring down Stormont: “I do not think collapsing the institutions is good for Northern Ireland. I do not think it is good for the people.
“I cannot look at the people in the face, those 300,000 on hospital waiting lists and say we are going to collapse an institution that is supposed to be looking after you.”
Mr Allister told the meeting that the protocol had divided the UK. He said: “In Manchester today – under the principles and purposes of the protocol – I am in a ‘third country’ as far as protocol-ruled Northern Ireland is concerned. That is an affront to our supposed status as an integral part of the United Kingdom and an intolerable affront to our Britishness. Is it an affront to the Conservative and Unionist Party?”
He added: “Brexit was supposed to be about ‘taking back control’; in our case it was about handing away control. We did not get Brexit, we got the Brexit-denying protocol.”
VIDEO: Jeffrey Donaldson and Lord Frost play down Boris Johnson’s failure to refer to NI Protocol
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