Thanks to Lecale District Officers for organising and their kind invitation to me to come along to address the meeting on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party. It’s a pleasure to be here, in this special venue, and I welcome the opportunity to engage in a grownup discussion.
We all recognise that this is a pivotal moment for Unionism and the threat that the protocol brings to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the Union that we all cherish so much.
It’s great to see such a large turnout this evening and that serves to prove that whatever Unionist Party banner you stand under this evening, we ALL need to keep focussing our energies, frustration and anger at those who put this agreement together. None of whom are sitting at this table tonight.
Sadly, we were let down by Boris Johnston and the Conservative and Unionist Party along with the EU.
The case we have is sound. Nationalism – backed by Dublin – made it clear that it would not accept a so-called ‘hard’ land border on the island of Ireland. So why the UK Government chose to sign up to a sea border, an internal border within the United Kingdom, only they can answer.
We have key players in Dublin, Brussels and Washington telling us that the Protocol protects the Belfast Agreement, when the reality is it does nothing but serious damage to the Belfast Agreement. It rides a coach and horses through something that we are trying to protect!
There is no doubt that Northern Ireland and the entire border issue has been used as a political weapon to beat the UK with as part of the wider Brexit negotiations.
The EU position HAS moved. They have realised that there are problems with the Protocol and have moved from the notion of ‘rigorous implementation’ to accepting that changes are needed - along with their rigorous implementing friends in Alliance, Sinn Fein, etc.
Their position has moved because they have been forced to listen to unionists who have sought to persuade both London and Brussels that change is needed.
I along with my UUP colleagues have constantly engaged with our business community over the last year and heard first-hand how this is affecting them. We have produced alternatives and solutions to the Protocol to help ease the pain of this needless red tape and extra cost pressures – Some of these have been adopted by the UK Government in the Command Paper of July 2021.
Goods travelling within the United Kingdom should NOT be subject to checks. And that applies to goods travelling from London to Kilkeel every bit as much as goods travelling from Glasgow to Manchester, or from Bristol to Cardiff.
The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is now the UK’s only land border with the EU. The EU is entitled to want to protect their single market, but the UK is also entitled to protect its own internal market.
If briefings are to be believed, the EU has raised concerns about olive oil, children’s toys and oranges amongst other so-called ‘risks’, coming from Great Britain into their single market. I would caution against turning this into a farce. There are solutions, not least those provided by my Party since 2019. What is needed is a clear will to put those solutions in place.
Goods intended for use in NI only should be able to travel unhindered from GB to Northern Ireland. Other arrangements can be put in place for goods transiting through Northern Ireland and on to the Republic, but goods that do not leave the UK should be able to travel unhindered.
We don’t need told that the Protocol and the way it is being implemented is harmful to Northern Ireland. It needs replaced. Significant changes are clearly needed and needed fast.
The key question now is how we oppose the Protocol without causing even greater damage to Northern Ireland and gambling with the future of the Union itself?
While we all here have a common goal, I would imagine there is an awful lot of differing views tonight in this room on how we actually get there in the end.
So those who call for the collapse of Stormont and the return of Direct Rule should be very careful of the long-term implications of what they`re wishing for.
I genuinely believe that collapsing Stormont because you want to see the removal of the Protocol, and returning all powers to the very Prime Minister who negotiated the Protocol in the first place does not seem to be a very logical or tactically sound strategy from a pro-Union perspective. Its madness!
This is where I disagree fundamentally and respectfully with the tactics of others at this table.
Unionism can win this argument but do so in a democratic way without destroying Stormont and damaging the lives and livelihoods of all the people living here. Given the many challenges facing all our people with soaring energy costs, massive hospital waiting lists and an economy that is recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic, we do need a functioning Executive in place.
So what has changed since the resignation of the First Minister with regards to the Protocol?... Checks are continuing as are talks between the EU and the British Government.
The only thing that has changed is that the people of Northern Ireland are going to miss out on major opportunities, particularly over health services because the budget cannot be agreed. Police numbers are likely to start dropping and we have seen the £36 million destined for football stadiums here put on the back burner once again.
I appreciate I may only be a local Councillor, and not elected to Stormont nor Westminster…
But as a Mum, Business owner and someone who strives to help struggling families in my community on a daily basis, I would appeal to those with power;
You’ve made your point, but you should now take the opportunity to go back into the Executive, deal with the budget, deal with the resources for our struggling health service, deal with the massive financial hole in policing and deal with cost-of-living crisis unfolding before our eyes.
By so doing, you will be denying Sinn Fein the chance to make political capital by criticising unionists as the ‘wreckers’ in Northern Ireland and not throw away the first opportunity to have a multi-year budget allowing the Health Minister to implement his plans to deal with the waiting list crisis, recruitment, as well as the cancer and mental health strategies.
If we as unionists don’t advocate for ourselves, there is no one who is going to do it for us. Instead of turning inwards and bringing down the devolved institutions, we should be confident that our argument is the winning one.
Unionism has a story to tell and we can win the argument on the Protocol, but that will require being prepared to make our case heard wherever it needs to be.
The Ulster Unionist Party is clear that unionism needs to engage more, not less. We need to make our case heard everywhere and make sure that we are understood. Talk to everyone who will listen and stop talking down our Country!
We may have left the European Union, but it is important that we build relationships there so that Unionism is understood and the problems the Protocol is causing Northern Ireland are fully grasped.
The NI Protocol is a political problem that requires a political solution and more engagement is the only way to succeed.
What we need is for negotiations to be concluded as quickly as possible with an outcome that works for everyone because it is more vital than ever that Northern Ireland, its people and businesses are given stability and certainty going forward.
If the EU is serious about not becoming involved within the internal political wrangling of Northern Ireland, the answer is already there. It is well beyond time negotiators got to the solution rather than adding more deadline posturing. We cannot continue in this perpetual cycle of negotiations.
The Protocol is as much an abomination to us in the UUP as any other unionist in any other party, but now is not a time to let our direction and focus be driven by anger and frustration. It needs cool heads and long-term strategic thinking.
It’s very easy to walk away, but it’s a lot harder to walk back in. If anything, the lessons of history tell us that every time unionism walks away, we come back with less on the table.
Ladies & Gentlemen,
As I close, I’ll remind you all that we are currently in the Grace period of derogations. That means that to date we haven’t even seen the full impact of what the protocol will bring in the long-term.
But I can assure you - neither will we - because we will continue to work with all of Unionism to replace the protocol and all of its ill intent.
This election in May is a crucial moment for us all as a Pro-Union family. It is imperative that we return as many pro-union MLAs to Stormont and ensure that we have a strong, inclusive voice for all those who believe in Our Union.