Doug Beattie: I want to promote a progressive and inclusive unionism with a welcoming approach
‘The Ulster Unionist Party is looking to the future and how we can rectify the DUP’s strategic mistakes’
UUP leader Doug Beattie: “A ‘union of people’ is not some abstract strapline. It is a vision for Northern Ireland, a vision for unionism and a vision for the future.” Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
As I take over as Ulster Unionist Party leader I am conscious that we as a party have many issues to address, but I will not put party before country and therefore my priority is Northern Ireland and its people.
I do not view loyalism through the lens of paramilitary groups. Those groups need to move on, and I will work to help them do so in order to create the space for loyalism to flourish as the socially liberal and forward-thinking community I know it is.
It is time we came together and that requires political unionism to reach out to grassroots loyalism and begin to represent its concerns. This requires less speaking and more listening, less telling and more doing, less suit and tie and more sleeves rolled up. We must connect, but loyalism must connect also by reaching out to offer meetings and distance itself from illegal organisations.
But if the vision of a union of people, which I genuinely have, is focused purely on loyalists and unionists then immediately I have failed. The reality is that there are those who do not identify as I do, and they need the same level of engagement. If they want to live here and help make this place work for everyone then we share the same purpose.
There are those from a nationalist background who may well see themselves through an Irish identity, but who may actually want to remain in Northern Ireland as it is, a great small nation as part of something bigger with all the positives that brings. For them their identity is about their culture and history. If that culture is respected, allowing them to be who they wish to be, then I believe they would be willing to stand with me to make Northern Ireland work.
Of course there are those who have a single aim of creating a united Ireland. That is a fair aspiration in the same way my wish to promote and strengthen the United Kingdom is a fair aspiration. That difference is readily understood, and we should all respect that difference.
There are no column inches with me criticising either the SDLP or Sinn Féin for not taking part in the planning discussion around how to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland. I can understand their position, yet I find myself facing criticism because I won’t join a discussion about how a united Ireland can be achieved. Surely people can see that this is an unreasonable ask, and a degree of understanding, as I have shown, stops unnecessary division.
The Northern Ireland Protocol is creating deeper divisions within our society, making reconciliation harder. As a unionist I cannot sit idly by and watch the Belfast Agreement be undermined with a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
As a party we did not sit silent and watch this car crash unfold. We raised the issues and warnings when the Brexit referendum was in full flow. We pointed out concerns about the protocol as far back as October 2019.
We now have to find a way forward. We can look back and see that when the DUP had influence it opted for short-term money instead of securing our long-term future. Its DNA is all over the protocol. The Ulster Unionist Party is looking to the future and how we rectify the DUP’s strategic mistakes.
The UK government was spooked by threats of a return to violence and an EU playing hardball by bringing the US into the equation. It allowed an Irish Sea border to separate our country in the form of the protocol, and in doing so upset the fine balance of the Belfast Agreement.
We have proposed solutions and suggested mitigations in order to create space so an alternative can be found. We have spoken to and will continue to speak to anyone who can deal with this issue in order to make Northern Ireland work.
Cause for concern
We accept that for our nationalist friends and neighbours a border with infrastructure on the island would be a cause for concern. Therefore they should equally understand that a border down the Irish Sea creates the same concern for unionists.
Surely everyone has a vested interest in making Northern Ireland a better place for its citizens? Therefore together we should be able to design a solution to the protocol that works for everyone.
We have come through a pandemic where being part of the UK has ensured we have had the resource to deal with it. The vaccination programme has allowed the Northern Ireland health minister to vaccinate more quickly than many other countries. The financial subventions from London allow for a better standard of living for many within our society.
I want to promote and develop a confident, progressive and inclusive unionism with an agile purpose and a welcoming approach which actually strengthens the union.
A “union of people” is not some abstract strapline. It is a vision for Northern Ireland, a vision for unionism and a vision for the future. I’m determined to make it a reality.
Doug Beattie is leader of the Ulster Unionist Party