DUP's Protocol panel files report after 'enlightening' consultation - but party says little about what it contains
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It comes as the panel submitted its report to the party leadership on Friday evening, after around three weeks of consultation, described by one MP as “enlightening”.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson however gave little clue of what the report actually contains, saying simply this in a statement:
“Earlier this month, I commissioned an eight person panel to consult widely as to the impact of Windsor Framework arrangements upon Northern Ireland and its ability to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom.
“I am delighted that a significant number of businesses, individuals and organisations participated fully and shared their perspectives.
“Having taken receipt of the report, I thank the panel for their dedicated efforts and will now take time to discuss the report with my party officer team.”
On March 6, an eight-person panel was set up by Sir Jeffrey “to commence and undertake a wide consultation process within Northern Ireland, listening and taking views on the framework document”.
It consisted of Carla Lockhart MP, DUP lord Peter Weir, ex-DUP leaders Peter Robinson and Baroness Foster, shipping businessman Ross Reed, Brian Kingston MLA, Deborah Erskine MLA, and lawyer John McBurney.
On March 20, the party released a statement saying that the party officers had “unanimously agreed” that its MPs should vote against the deal when the first part of it was brought before the House of Commons by the government – a vote which was seen as an endorsement or rejection of the entire deal as a whole.
Speaking to the News Letter on Friday, Carla Lockhart said: "It's been an excellent exercise and very informative, with significant engagement.
"So it's definitely not a redundant process, and actually some of it has been really worthwhile from a party perspective, because it's been quite enlightening…
"A very worthwhile exercise. And we're very thankful for the level of engagement – it's been a mammoth task.
"It's been a significant piece of work, and I'm busted!”
Peter Weir meanwhile said that the panel would be “reporting what people told us - we won't be giving our views on things”.
"It's important people have their say,” he said.
"Sometimes people accuse politicians of simply sailing on ahead and no listening to what people have to say. We've gone into things in a lot of detail.”
As Mr Weir and Mrs Lockhart talk up the amount of engagement the DUP has had of late with the unionist grassroots, the party issued a statement warning against a “splintering” of the unionist vote in the upcoming council elections.
A statement from the party said that “split unionist votes will only help non-unionists win more seats”.
“At the last election some people argued that you can’t split the vote in a PR election,” said East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson in the statement.
"They were left red faced however when the results were declared as their theory was proved wrong in practice.
"North Antrim was the clearest example of a constituency where too many unionist candidates led to a splintering of the vote and enabled a non-unionist to be elected ahead of a fourth unionist.
"I want to see as many unionists as possible returned to council chambers across Northern Ireland.
"Particularly in Belfast and the west, Sinn Fein has driven an anti-British policy through our councils. Elections are the time send a message that you want to restore the balance.
"This election is an opportunity to elect a strong DUP team in each council to stand up for those of us who want to see Northern Ireland prosper.”
This drew a sharp response from the TUV, which issued a statement from Newtownabbey candidate Norman Boyd, castigating the DUP for “attacking voters who dare to vote for any unionist who doesn’t have a DUP badge”.
He added that, given the power-sharing arrangements the DUP has participated in, “if DUP wants to find people who empower Sinn Fein he would be best advised to look closer to home”.