Unionists rebutt SF claim about support for the Protocol

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald has drawn fire after claiming the general public do not back efforts to axe the NI Protocol – including “many within wider unionism”.

Thursday, 24th June 2021, 7:53 am
Updated Thursday, 24th June 2021, 9:23 am

She made the remarks in a speech entitled ‘Change, sharing power and building for the future’ yesterday evening.

But they drew a sharp rebuke from both DUP MP Paul Girvan and former Ulster Unionist leader Lord Empey.

Specifically, Mrs McDonald said “with Brexit and the approach to the protocol, the DUP are not in step with broad public opinion including many within wider unionism”.

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Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald

The DUP (and other unionists of different political stripes) have long called for the protocol to be axed, on the basis that it hinders free trade within the UK.

Her remarks come at a crucial juncture, as it remains to be seen what the next steps will be from new DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, who has indicated that the protocol will be his principal focus.

Reacting last night, Mr Girvan said: “She doesn’t speak for unionism. She obviously doesn’t understand the strength of feeling there is. And watch this space – because the protocol must go.”

Meanwhile, Sir Reg said: “I know of no unionist who is in favour of the protocol ...

“I’m more than happy to be pointed in the direction of those who are supporting it.

“But all I’m saying to you is I’m unaware of them.”

At one point in her speech last night – which coincided with the five-year anniversary of the Brexit referendum – Mrs McDonald said: “Talk of abolishing the Irish protocol are not grounded in reality.”

Mr Girvan, DUP MP for South Antrim, said that businesses at large are hampered by the protocol, and that “unionism feels it’s being dealt a really big blow – yet again”.

He added: “As a consequence my argument is the protocol must go.

“The protocol must go. Keep that message simple – it must go. People tinkering around the edges of this is not what I want. I want it away.”

When it comes to Mrs McDonald’s comments about unionist public sentiment, he said: “I don’t know where she’s getting that. She’s obviously not talking to the same people I am.

“I don’t know how many unionists are in communication with her about it, but it definitely does not reflect the situation and the strength of feeling there is on the ground.”

Lord Empey, a UUP peer who has been a vociferous critic of the protocol and the resulting Irish Sea border, told the News Letter: “I don’t believe her. I know of no unionist who is in favour of the protocol ...

“I totally reject what she has to say on the matter.

“I believe unionism broadly is opposed in principle to what has happened.”

He also pointed out the change in republican attitudes towards the EU in recent years (for example, the IRA’s operating manual, the Green Book, contained a segment strongly denouncing the European Economic Community).

Sinn Fein now presents itself as a party supportive of what the EU has done,” Sir Reg added.

“It is and has always been the most anti-European party on the island, opposing Europe from the 1970s.”

The BBC’s Stephen Nolan this week reported that sources close to the camp of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had told him “he will demand no barriers to trade and demand there is full respect for the Act of Union or he will pull the DUP out of the Assembly”.

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