Organisers Lurgan United Unionists told the Parades Commission to expect sixty bands and over 10,000 people.
The event will begin with a parade at 7.30pm on Friday 8 April in Robert Street, proceeding along Queen Street, High Street, Market Street, and on to Brownlow House. The end time given for the parade is 9pm, and the return march is slated to begin at 10pm.
Former Labour MP Baroness Kate Hoey and former Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib, who have taken part in many rallies so far, will not be present on this occasion. But TUV leader Jim Allister said there was no suggestion the rallies are running out of steam.
“Thousands have attended events up and down the country and I have every reason to believe that tomorrow night’s event is going to be one of the biggest yet,” he said. “The decision of the UUP leader to pull out of the rally is disappointing but not surprising given how out of touch the party is with grassroots Unionists.
“The Protocol protests are important as they have allowed the very substantial number of people who are exercised about the Sea Border to demonstrate their opposition to the division of the United Kingdom peacefully and within the law.
“Going forward, it is important that there is no backsliding on the issue. The spectacle of all Unionists in the Assembly bar myself and Jim Wells voting to ban British soil from Northern Ireland cannot be repeated. Unionists can best show their opposition to that and the disastrous Poots’ Posts by voting TUV - No Sea Border on Election Day.”
UUP leader Doug Beattie said peaceful protests are legitimate forms of expression in any free and democratic society - but reiterated his concerns that the rallies could raise tensions and end with young people suffering criminal convictions.
“The Northern Ireland Protocol has galvanised a protest movement locally and the voices of many rank and file unionists and loyalists have been heard,” he said. “But when does that peaceful protest turn into election rallies? When does it suddenly become about the politicians and their election calls? The reality is that when talking from a podium there is little real opportunity to engage with those wanting to hear the message.”
He added that some of those standing at the podium represent political parties that previously gave tacit approval to the NI Protocol, including party leaders who said that ‘customs checks don’t mean a change in constitutional status’ or even that the protocol offers ‘the best of both worlds’.
The UUP has consistently warned of the inherent dangers in the Protocol from day one, he said, and has brought forward solutions, some of which have been adopted by the UK Government in its Command Paper of 2021.
“As the Ulster Unionist party leader I am clear that my integrity is solid, our position is clear and we will continue to fight against the Protocol through sensible, clear and concise engagement which will show outcomes in the months to come.
“But what I cannot do is stand on a platform that has changed the argument from attacking the Protocol to attacking the Belfast Agreement and seeking to pull down the devolved institutions. I cannot stand on a platform that has turned into election political speeches designed for cheers and applause and not engagement. I cannot, given the events of the last number of weeks, be part of anything that might, depending on what is said on the podium which I have no control over, raise the temperature and tensions. I simply will not be responsible in any way for our young people finding themselves on the wrong side of the law and ruining their life chances.”
Loyalist activist Jamie Bryson said the reduced panel on this occasion was the deliberate choice of organisers as speakers are addressing a break in a major parade.
“The UUP were initially in attendance of course, but since they have turned their back on the anti-Protocol movement, even going so far as to suggest there is no constitutional threat, then obviously there’ll be an empty chair on the platform.”
He said there would be rallies all over the province in coming weeks, with a wide range of contributors. Asked if they were making any difference, he replied that it was “the influence and pressure from grassroots unionism and loyalism which has caused political unionism to act”.
And pressed on whether there are any plans beyond street rallies to impact the Protocol, he replied: “Plans would not be very good plans if they were to be revealed in advance of their implementation.”