By Doug Beattie MC MLA
There will be many who will criticise me for writing in Unionist Voice. Yet I think we need more engagement, not less and a deliberate policy of exclusion from engagement helps nobody. It places a firewall between the electorate and the politicians and to how we truly understand individual and collective views.
There are those who will not agree with my views and vision for Unionism. I can accept that, but I’m convinced I have it right and confident it will improve collective unionism.
Finally there are those who will attack my credentials as a unionist but they do so by not knowing who I am or what has shaped me.
My early years were a semi nomadic lifestyle moving from place to place as my father was a Colour Sergeant in the Royal Ulster Rifles. However we returned to live in Northern Ireland when I was 10 and the family, 6 children and 2 parents, moved into a 3 bedroom terrace house.
That was 1975 during the height of the troubles and that led to my father immediately joining the UDR.
The troubles touched many families and mine was no different. In April 1975 my uncle, Samuel Johnston, was murdered by Republican terrorists. If you read Lost Lives it will say he was a member of the UDA, if you look at the CAIN Index it says he was a civilian. I do not know the truth.
Either way my memory of Samuel was of a man I had connected with immediately. My other memory imprinted on my mind is my mother falling to her knees screaming when she was told her young brother had been murdered. It was the first funeral I was to attend, but not the last. I was to lose my mother, by this stage a Greenfinch, to cancer when I was aged 15.
I was good at school but the school system I was part of left me disenfranchised from education. Something that is still prevalent today. So I left school at 16 with no educational qualifications and joined the army.
My military career was long and varied and continues today with reserve service. From guarding Rudolf Hess in Spandau Prison, Berlin to guarding American Cruise Missiles at Greenham Common.
I have served across the globe from Kosovo to Somalia, Iraq to Afghanistan as a peacekeeper, a war fighter, a conflict monitor. I received the General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland Commendation, the Queens Commendation for Bravery in Iraq, the NATO Meritorious Service Medal for service in Bosnia and the Military Cross for my role in Afghanistan.
I’m very proud of my service and I accept that some, who oppose me politically or who will never accept the military in any guise, will never accept me for this reason. But it saddens me when unionists and some loyalists denigrate my unionism by calling me a coward or a roll over unionist when I am far from it.
So now, not by design and not because I’m a career politician, I have become the Ulster Unionist Party Leader. It is something I’m proud of, but it is also a heavy burden as I try to map out a vision to make Northern Ireland work and maintain the Union we hold so precious.
I have said that I believe in a union of people and some see it as nothing more than a strap line. Yet to protect the Union we must promote the Union and by making it a place where people want to live, want to work, to educate their children, have decent housing and a good standard of living.
Therefore it is important that I address our failing health service. There is no point using it as a clarion call for staying in the Union if it is not fit for purpose and our people get sicker or die on waiting lists. I can say the same for affordable social housing, we have a waiting list and people are dying waiting to be housed.
My view on education is clear given my failures at an early stage in my life. I muddled through and although I still have no educational qualifications I have worked hard and luck has fallen on my side.
That is not always going to be the case so we must address educational under achievement. In doing so we must address poverty which is one of the causes of underachievement and wellbeing must be at the heart of any community. Our people need a reason to get out of bed in the morning and a sense of fulfilment when they go to bed at the end of the day.
So I will not apologise for saying health, education, poverty, housing and wellbeing are a priority for me and my party.
But I cannot deny that the Protocol is our party’s main effort. Because if we do not deal with it now all those other priorities will be for nothing as our Union is slowly undermined.
I know many voted for BREXIT, I did not, and my party was in large against it. The simple reason for this is that we believed it would damage the Union. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster in 2016 clearly stated, before the referendum, that a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland could be one of the options.
However as a democratic party we accepted the result of the referendum and set about trying to shape the terms of the withdrawal.
When the protocol actually made an appearance in 2019 it had unionist DNA all over it but not UUP DNA. We spent two weeks from 2nd October outlining its dangers, but we were ignored. We fought a general election based on fighting against the protocol and we were overlooked.
This is all retrospective because we have to deal with the here and now. Yet understanding how we got here is important. So let’s now be honest.
As it stands the Northern Ireland Protocol cannot be voted away in 2024. We can vote to discontinue articles 5-10 but then we go into a 2-year negotiation where articles 5-10 will be replaced with something else.
The three main issues that we presently face are all difficult to address because the protocol is a legally binding international agreement. The first is trade and I think this will be mitigated against so that the Irish Sea Border will become invisible. Deals will be found on goods, services and medicines in the coming weeks and months.
The second issue is not so easy.
With the protocol in place we have a democratic deficit. We are expected to take EU rules and laws yet we will not have a say, so as an MLA for Upper Bann I represent my constituents yet under the protocol I simply cannot represent them on some issues. Instead we will be ruled by a committee.
This is simply not acceptable yet it has not been spoken about enough. We cannot support a protocol that does not give us a say on laws that affect us.
The third issue is the Belfast Agreement. This agreement gave everyone in Northern Ireland a set of rights. Rights that meant we would be treated the same as any other British citizen and that would not be changed unless by the democratic will of the people of Northern Ireland.
Of course we have devolution, but this is not a devolved issue. It is a legally binding agreement that should not be disregarded or undermined in the way it presently is. This
is not just my view, but it is the view of the chair of Seanad Éireann committee for the
U.K. leaving the EU who said, under my questioning, the protocol damages the Belfast Agreement.
We cannot support the protocol because it damages the Belfast Agreement.
There is of course other issues such as the Act of Union and the protocol is in breach of this. The present court action is likely to highlight the issue, but my concern is that the Act of Union can simply be changed by the U.K. Government if they were so minded to do so.
So where are we now? The truth is that the protocol cannot just be disposed of without something being put in its place. The UUP have put forward two options to replace the protocol and a number of mitigations; including asking for legislation to put a duty on companies in GB to provides services right across the U.K.
We continue to engage in order to ensure the EU, Irish Government, US Government and U.K. Government know the serious issues we are facing in the future. To disengage will leave us without a voice and I believe that to be counterproductive. Had we not disengaged with the US government in the 90s then we would have more friends in Washington than we presently have. The very fact that the US is built on Ulster Scots stock is an opportunity for us to improve our links. It was an Ulster Scot who designed the Great Seal of the United States, another Ulster Scot printed the first Declaration of Independence and l7 US presidents have Ulster Scots ancestry.
My aim is to send 2 UUP missions to both the EU and the US to promote unionism and to outline our concerns. We need friends and we need understanding and engagement is the only way to achieve this.
I know the anger and frustration within the unionist community. I have felt it directly, but I accept it as I know it is up to me to deal with the issues that confront unionism.
For those who say the UUP doesn’t reach into loyalism I tell you we do. However, it remains difficult if loyalism is not willing to reach out and this characterisation of the UUP as big house unionism is simply no longer the case. Many of the unionist representatives come from backgrounds very similar to your own.
How can anyone say Andy Allen, an MLA and soldier, who lost his legs in the service of his country, is big house unionism? Or Robin Swann, Sonia Copeland, Robert Foster, Darren Guy or John Stewart and many more like them. They come from the same working class backgrounds you came from as did I.
Honesty and knowledge are the currency we must use in our engagements. The UUP walking out of the executive would give the seat to Sinn Fein and take away an exceptional Health Minister in Robin Swann. Collapsing Stormont would simply give Dublin more of a say in our daily lives and if you think that is not the case just look at the New Decade New Approach document that brought Stormont back to life last year. It was co-designed by the U.K. and Irish Government and we as a party were still reading it when it was announced as a deal.
So as a society we have many challenges and I will be addressing them with a determination I have gleaned from the battlefield.
I’m characterised as a liberal unionist trying to occupy the middle ground but that is not completely accurate. I’m a unionist first and I have liberal values which helps build a Northern Ireland that will sustain itself within the Union. That said we are the only party of the five who does not support the Stormont House Agreement legacy mechanisms. So some would say we are on the right of that particular issue.
I don’t care what ground we are seen as being on. Maintaining the Union is my aim, bringing people with me regardless of religion, colour, sexual orientation or cultural background is how I will achieve it. What I now need is for people to show the moral courage I know they have and say that for the last 15 years unionism has been categorised as being unwelcoming, our culture exclusionary, our vision insular. This has undermined unionism.
I shall promote a confident, inclusive, progressive unionism and I am determined to change our fortunes not just at home, but on the worldwide stage. That’s what I call ambition and I would like you to join me in realising it.
Doug Beattie MC MLA
Ulster Unionist Party