Northern Ireland protocol ‘can and will be dealt with’, Doug Beattie says

UUP leader says there will be ‘no united Ireland in my lifetime’ at manifesto launch

Issues around the Northern Ireland protocol "can and will be dealt", the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Doug Beattie said at the party's manifesto launch in Belfast on Thursday.

Mr Beattie also said there would be “no united Ireland in my lifetime” or in his children’s lifetime, and called for the constitutional question to be set aside so that politicians could focus on issues affecting people’s daily lives.

He distanced his party from the stance taken by other unionist parties on the protocol – who have criticised him for not taking part in anti-protocol rallies – and accused them of using it as an election strategy.

"Regardless of what others are saying, there will be no fundamental change to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the UK," he said. "So instead of using the protocol as an election slogan let's get to work, real work, to get the issues dealt with."

The UUP was, he said, “a pro-union party that will do more than just say no . . . we have a positive vision for the future.”

Mr Beattie was speaking flanked by his party’s 27 election candidates in front of HMS Caroline, a restored first World War warship in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, in the East Belfast constituency.

Also speaking during the manifesto launch, the UUP chairman, Danny Kennedy, said the history of the ship – the only surviving vessel to have taken part in the Battle of Jutland in 1916 – had parallels to that of the UUP.

“Caroline endured choppy waters much as in many ways the political waters were choppy for the Ulster Unionist Party, but Caroline survived and the Ulster Unionist Party has survived and, better than that, is looking forward to making an important contribution to the future.”

Asked by reporters to confirm if his party would take the deputy first minister’s position alongside a nationalist first minister, Mr Beattie said, “we have absolutely no issue” with whichever party emerges as the leader following the election, “whether they’re nationalist or whether they’re not nationalist”.

But he said the UUP’s position would be based on the “negotiation on how we go forward” which would take place after the election.

The DUP has refused to say if it would go back into government following the election if Sinn Féin is returned as the largest party and is therefore entitled to the first minister role.

The former first minister, the Democratic Unionist Party's Paul Givan, resigned from the Executive in February as part of his party's protest against the Northern Ireland protocol, and the DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has indicated his party would not return to the Executive unless issues around the protocol were resolved to their satisfaction.

NI protocol

The UUP leader said the protocol was “a political issue to be dealt with” and it would not stop his party going into government.

Unionists are opposed to the Northern Ireland protocol – the part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement that avoided a hard Border on the island of Ireland by placing a trade border in the Irish Sea – because they argue it has caused economic difficulties in the North and undermines its constitutional position within the UK.

In a short section on the protocol in the party’s manifesto, the UUP said unionists “cannot accept” an internal border within the UK but it wanted to “create solutions” and acknowledged there were “some benefits” to having access to the EU single market.

“It is understood there needs to be some form of trading treaty between the UK and EU but this can be achieved through common sense, pragmatic solutions,” the manifesto said.

The main focus of the manifesto was on health, with the party emphasising the achievements of its sole minister, Robin Swann, in the health portfolio during the Covid-19 pandemic and calling for "radical reform" of the management and day-to-day oversight of the health service.

It also advocated a reform of the education system in Northern Ireland to create a “multi-denominational single education system.”

One of the party's candidates in East Belfast Lauren Kerr said the "potential for our positive, progressive pro-union alternative to shake the status quo is huge".

“No matter what the DUP and Sinn Féin might say, the Border is not on the ballot paper. What is on the ballot paper is a type of Northern Ireland that we want to build.”