Poots criticises ‘aggressive’ Irish government over protocol

‘We need the EU to recognise that Northern Ireland protocol is not fit for purpose’

With leadership changes at the Ulster Unionist Party and the DUP both leaders set out to unite and inspire unionism, but in very different ways. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

Newly-elected Democratic Unionist Party leader Edwin Poots has accused an “aggressive” Irish government of hugely damaging cross-Border relations in its backing for the Northern Ireland protocol.

The Lagan Valley MLA, who narrowly defeated Jeffrey Donaldson in the leadership race on Friday, hinted his party would continue to snub North-South Ministerial Council meetings until the Irish government recognises the “unacceptability” of its actions.

Mr Poots said before returning to cross-Border ministerial co-operation, he wanted to meet with the Irish government “to set out what the issues are because they have hugely damaged North-South relations in their conduct over the protocol, the demands they have made and their aggressive nature.”

“They claim to be protectors of the Belfast Agreement yet they have allowed a coach and horses to be driven through it,” he added.

“They need to recognise the unacceptability of that.”

In an interview with the Sunday Life newspaper outlining his plans for his leadership of the North’s largest unionist party, Mr Poots said the protocol “is by far the biggest issue.”

“For me, this is not a unionist issue. This is a Northern Ireland issue,” he added.

The post-Brexit arrangements, agreed by London and Brussels, put a de facto trade barrier for certain goods between in the Irish Sea between the North and Britain, to protect the EU single market.

Mr Poots, whose party supported Brexit, said goods that are staying in the United Kingdom “should not have checks.”

“That is my ultimate goal,” he said.

Mr Poots said if there was no political progress on the issue over the coming weeks he would be looking to ”judicial remedies”, separate to an existing challenge to the protocol in Belfast’s High Court.

The DUP leader said he was already working with “a senior UK lawyer” about potential legal proceedings “in the not too distant future”.

In the meantime, his ministers will “seek to strip away elements of the protocol, but ultimately it needs fundamentally changed (or) removed to take things forward.”

First Minister

Mr Poots is expected to consult with his party’s MLAs and MPs in the coming weeks about who will succeed Arlene Foster as First Minister, as well as any potential reshuffle of Executive ministers.

Any ministerial shake-up should “reflect the wishes” of the elected representatives who narrowly voted him in as new party leader, he said.

Again ruling out taking over the Stormont role from Ms Foster, who has said she will stand down at the end of June, Mr Poots said he wants to focus on his “reform agenda” as well as “building and leading the party and calling out republicanism when it is appropriate to do so.”

DUP MLAs Mervyn Storey, Paul Givan, the party’s deputy leader-elect Paula Bradley and Paul Frew are among those being mentioned as possible contenders for the First Minister position.

East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson said Mr Poots has yet to be ratified as leader by the party executive, and will discuss his ministerial team with party officers after that.

The party is to meet this week to decide when the ratification process takes place.

“Arlene is there until the end of June. We will decide between now and then,” added Wilson.

Christoper Stafford, one of the first DUP MLAs to come out in support of Poots as leader, said he hadn’t the “faintest idea” who would succeed Ms Foster.

“But I’m pretty certain it will not be me,” he added.

‘Unionist pact’

Mr Poots said he was happy to meet with anyone “on protecting the single market”.

On speculation of a unionist pact in next year’s Assembly elections, Mr Poots suggested that securing a unionist majority at Stormont would allow them to overthrow the protocol, under a planned review of its working in 2024.

“I would favour a pact. I would favour working with my unionist colleagues to maximise the number of seats,” he said.

But he admitted it would be a “huge challenge” to increase the current 40 unionist seats in the 90-seater legislature to 45, although he was prepared to help other unionists win more seats.

The Ulster Unionist Party’s Doug Beattie, currently the only candidate to take over in a leadership contest within unionism’s second largest party, immediately appeared to pour cold water on Mr Poots’ plans.

It was “simply not true” that 45 unionist MLAs can vote away the protocol, he insisted, adding that those making such claims were “not being honest with the electorate.”

“The reality is you can vote away articles 5 to 10, but the protocol stays, then we go into a two-year period where articles 5 to 10 get replaced with something else,” the Upper Bann MLA told the BBC’s Sunday Politics.

“So this business of let’s have unionist unity and we’ll thump the protocol away is not being honest with the electorate. So we have to start this off with being as honest as we can.”

The UUP also wanted “rid” of the protocol but was working on the basis of suggesting alternatives and mitigations, Mr Beattie said.

“What we will not be doing is telling people out there an untruth in order to garner support.”