Unionist leaders issue joint declaration opposing Northern Ireland protocol

The leaders of Northern Ireland’s four main unionist parties have issued a joint appeal to the UK government to scrap the Irish Sea customs border imposed as part of Brexit.

In a joint statement, they said the so-called Northern Ireland protocol must go. The statement was signed by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, whose Democratic Unionist party is part of the region’s power-sharing executive; Doug Beattie, head of the Ulster Unionist party; Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice; and Billy Hutchinson, leader of the Progressive Unionist party.

“We . . . affirm our opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol . . . and reaffirm our unalterable position that the protocol must be rejected and replaced by arrangements which fully respect Northern Ireland’s position as a constituent and integral part of the United Kingdom,” they said. They put forward no proposals of their own.

The joint stand from parties, which disagree on many other issues, came amid mounting suggestions that London could trigger Article 16 of the protocol soon to suspend its implementation, a move that would ratchet up long-running political tension with Brussels.

Britain’s top negotiator, Lord David Frost, last week called on the EU to address problems caused by the protocol concerns “urgently”. The UK wants negotiation, rather than solutions handed down by the EU.

Local business leaders are finalising proposals to present to the EU suggesting ways of making the protocol work. Brussels has indicated it is willing to be flexible but has flatly ruled out scrapping the deal.

Having a customs border down the Irish Sea, the compromise the UK agreed upon in its exit from the EU to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, is diverting trade, the statement said. “[It] is destructive of Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and will result in an economic realignment which is unacceptable,” it read.

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The statement was issued on the anniversary of the signature of the 1912 Ulster covenant, dubbed “Ulster Day”, which commemorates political opposition among unionists to London’s plans for home rule in Ireland.

The joint stand came after Donaldson earlier this month threatened to withdraw his ministers from the executive unless the protocol was scrapped.

Such a move could trigger elections months ahead of the May 2022 scheduled vote. Polls show unionism is deeply fractured and the republican Sinn Féin party is set to win.

Beattie told the Financial Times the joint position “is nothing to do with the election”. He added: “We have always said there needs to be some kind of treaty, call it whatever you want. But fundamental change has to happen.”

Unionist leaders say the protocol is putting at risk the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of sectarian Troubles in Northern Ireland, and also undermining the 1880 Act of Union with the UK.

Good relations with the EU “cannot be achieved . . . with a regulatory border partitioning the United Kingdom and subjecting Northern Ireland to European Union laws and jurisdiction”, they said.

There was no immediate response to a request for comment from London.

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