Northern Ireland Protocol: Unionist leaders take the fight against it to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester

Unionist opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol will take centre stage during an event at the Tory conference in Manchester this afternoon.

Monday, 4th October 2021, 1:43 am
Updated Monday, 4th October 2021, 7:50 am
Tight security outside the Manchester Central Convention Complex during the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester yesterday. Today's debate involving the Northern Ireland unionist leaders will take place outside but near to this main conference zone. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

The leaders of all three main unionist parties – the DUP’s Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the UUP’s Doug Beattie and the TUV’s Jim Allister – will address the event alongside the former UUP leader Lord Trimble, and the pro-Brexit former Labour MP Baroness Hoey.

The fringe conference event, due to take place at noon today, will be chaired by the PR man and former UUP MP David Burnside.

Mr Allister told the News Letter he plans to spell out to the grassroots of the UK’s ruling party how the Irish Sea border is an “affront to our supposed status as an integral part of the United Kingdom and an intolerable affront to our Britishness”.

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Jim Allister, who will join the other two unionist party leaders at a debate in Manchester today

Mr Allister will ask: “Is it an affront to the Conservative and Unionist Party?”

He is expected to say the “onus” is on the prime minister to take action.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, meanwhile, told the News Letter on Saturday that he would take nothing “on trust” from the Conservative Party.

He also repeated a warning that if the government ignores his demands on the protocol, but still pushes through a “culture package” at the end of the month, then there will be “severe consequences” at Stormont.

Sir Jeffrey has previously indicated he is prepared to collapse the power-sharing government at Stormont by withdrawing DUP ministers from the Executive in a bid to force an early election, in the absence of action on the protocol from the UK government.

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

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he believes the Northern Ireland Protocol could “in principle work” if it was “fixed”.

In an interview with the BBC, the Conservative Party leader did not, however, rule out triggering Article 16 if the EU failed to come up with plans to deal with current issues.

“The protocol could in principle work,” he told the broadcaster.

“It has got enough leeway in the language for it to be applied in a common sense way without creating too many checks down the Irish Sea.”

But he warned it will come down to “fixing it or ditching it”.

Mr Allister, meanwhile, is expected to issue a challenge to Mr Johnson during his speech at the fringe event.

“The motivation and purpose of the protocol is to build an all-Ireland economically, in the belief that political union will follow,” he is expected to say.

“By curbing our trade from Great Britain, business and thus the economy is compelled to look increasingly to the Republic – to look to Dublin, not London.

“Just as the EU itself built political union through economic union, so they hope the same template can apply.

“Thus, in every sense, this is a Union-dismantling protocol.”

Mr Allister indicated he is also likely to say: “Given that shockingly this has been put upon us by a ‘Conservative and Unionist’ government, the question is when are you going to right this great wrong? Or will perfidy continue to rule?

“The onus is on you, prime minister.

“In conclusion let me make it clear, the test for me for any tinkering and changes is the simple but defining one – are we still left subject to a foreign single market for goods, subject to a foreign customs code and VAT regime and under the rule of foreign laws and court. If so, you will have solved nothing.

“Restoring a United Kingdom requires the protocol to go in all its parts.”

The appearance by the leaders of the three largest unionist party leaders at the conference today follows a joint statement signed by all three figures, and the PUP leader Billy Huthcinson, outlining their united opposition to the protocol last week.

In a video alongside the other party leaders, the UUP’s Doug Beattie said: “The protocol undermines the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Therefore we cannot support that.”

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