Doug Beattie said his party will not be involved in rallies that he said were ‘raising tensions’ in Northern Ireland.
27 March 2022
The Ulster Unionist Party leader has accused unionist and loyalist organisers of anti-Northern Ireland Protocol rallies of stoking tension in the region.
In a lengthy statement on Sunday, Doug Beattie said that his party will not be involved in rallies that he said were “raising tensions” in Northern Ireland.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was among those who addressed a rally against the protocol on Friday, alongside TUV leader Jim Allister, Baroness Hoey, Ben Habib and Jamie Bryson in Ballymoney, Co Antrim.
It was the latest in a string of protests against the post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland, which are fiercely opposed by unionists and loyalists.
Mr Beattie said on Sunday that the anti-protocol rallies were adding to tensions, alluding to a security alert in Belfast on Friday which led to the Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney being evacuated from a peace event.
The UVF is suspected of involvement in the incident, which was condemned by politicians from across the political spectrum.
Police are still investigating the incident.
Mr Beattie said: “There are many issues that face the people of Northern Ireland and the most pressing and immediate now is the cost-of-living crisis including fuel poverty.
“It is important that politicians focus on this issue which the Ulster Unionist Party has been highlighting since last year.
“The Northern Ireland Protocol remains a political issue that cannot be ignored and we have repeatedly stated that it needs to be replaced with a solution that works for everyone.
“It is leading to real societal harm. This includes terrorists back on our streets doing what they do best, terrorising an already beleaguered society.
“There are also media reports quoting UVF sources that they intend to escalate their terrorist activities in the coming weeks.
“It is now clear that anti-protocol rallies are being used to raise the temperature in Northern Ireland and adding to tensions that now see a resurgence in UVF activity.
“The Ulster Unionist Party will not be part of raising tensions or the temperature by bringing people onto the streets with an intent to harness anger.
“As a party we will continue to engage in all community-led meetings where we will answer our critics. As the party leader I will make myself available, where possible, to explain my rationale for dealing with the protocol.
“But I will not add to the raising of tensions that others seem intent on doing.”
The statement comes with only weeks to go before the Assembly elections in Northern Ireland, in which the UUP will be hoping to compete strongly against Sir Jeffrey’s DUP.
Mr Beattie does not mention the DUP or name any individuals in the statement.
Mr Beattie said that his party will continue to urge the EU and the UK to make progress on finding solutions to some of the issues caused by the protocol.
He also said that triggering Article 16, which would suspend some elements of the post-Brexit arrangements in place for Northern Ireland, could be legitimate.
“We believe that triggering Article 16 would be a valid use on any aspect of the protocol that is contributing to the cost-of-living crisis.”
But he warned: “The protocol is a political problem and it will be dealt with through political solutions.
“What we cannot allow is for a small group of individuals with the loudest voices to lead politicians by the nose in doing their bidding.”
The statement from the UUP leader prompted a swift response from Mr Allister, who accused Mr Beattie of directing a “slur” against him.
In a statement he said: “I refute and deplore the UUP leader’s slur that peaceful and necessary protests against the Union-dismantling Protocol are raising tensions.
“Every protest I have attended has been utterly peaceful.
“Thus to adopt the tone and approach of opposing such protests is not just to echo the rhetoric of the pro-protocol brigade but is to slight the thousands of concerned unionists who have attended these peaceful protests.
“If Doug Beattie put real effort into opposing the iniquitous protocol, then he would be serving unionism better.
“Facing up to the constitutional peril of GB being decreed and treated as a foreign country by the protocol, with goods originating there being subject to foreign customs checks, would be a suitable starting point for a UUP that has been lacklustre in its ‘opposition’ to the protocol.”