UUP chief concedes he will lose votes after pulling out of anti-protocol rallies

Doug Beattie was commenting after his constituency office was vandalised hours after he announced his party would no longer participate in the demos.

David Young
Monday 28 March 2022 20:01
UUP leader Doug Beattie (Liam McBurney/PA)
UUP leader Doug Beattie (Liam McBurney/PA)

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie has predicted he will lose votes over his move to withdraw from anti-Northern Ireland Protocol rallies.

Mr Beattie was commenting after his constituency office was vandalised hours after he announced that his party was stepping away from the controversial loyalist demonstrations against Brexit’s Irish Sea border.

The Upper Bann MLA insisted he would not be deterred after a window was smashed at the property in Portadown, Co Armagh.

“I won’t lie for a vote, and if I lose votes I will lose votes,” Mr Beattie said.

People who know Upper Bann will understand that in many cases I will lose votes because of the decision I have made, but it’s the right decision.

“I’m not doing this for a vote, I’m doing this because the tensions in Northern Ireland are rising, and somebody can smash my window but I can fix it, but the first time that someone gets injured, the first time that someone gets killed, there is no going back on that.

“We are in a spiral of violence that I do not want to get us into. This is nothing to do with the election, this purely to do with protests around the protocol, which I do not think that we should get involved in to raise tensions.”

On Sunday evening, the UUP leader claimed anti-protocol rallies were being used to whip up tensions in Northern Ireland.

He linked the increasing political volatility to an upsurge in paramilitary activity, including a bomb hoax at an event attended by Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney in north Belfast on Friday.

That incident, in which a van driver was hijacked at gunpoint, has been blamed on the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

Orangemen march during an anti Northern Ireland Protocol parade in Ballymoney (Liam McBurney/PA)

Prominent politicians from other unionist parties, including DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and TUV leader Jim Allister, have addressed recent rallies, and defended them as peaceful protests.

On Monday, Mr Beattie said he did not know if paramilitaries had attended the rallies, adding: “If you’re going to ask me to speculate, I will speculate and speculate by saying yes, I do think they will have been there.”

He told reporters in Belfast: “But I can only speculate, the answer is I simply do not know.”

He said those addressing the rallies had to take responsibility for their language, and some of the speeches had made him concerned and uneasy.

“If somebody’s standing on the podium and telling people to go away and be angry, guess what, they will go away and they will be angry,” he said.

“If people are saying we need to raise the temperature, it will raise the temperature, if people are going to target or pick out Irish politicians, then that’s going to lead to other actions. So, we have to be really careful.

“I think for the benefit of society, to help reduce tensions, I think we should all reconsider how we go about protesting against the protocol.”

Mr Beattie said peaceful protests did not need to stop but he suggested there was a need to change the focus of the events, potentially to a town hall meeting format.

Doug Beattie during a constituency visit with party colleague Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Beattie said the events were also increasingly becoming a vehicle to express opposition to the historic 1998 Good Friday/Belfast peace accord.

“I’m a party leader of a party who believes that the Belfast Agreement is what has given us peace and what will help us get through this crisis in the long term,” he said.

He said he would rather see rallies and protests about the cost-of-living crisis in Northern Ireland.

The MLA added: “Blood-and-thunder rhetoric from a lectern will not help nor solve the protocol problem. This is exactly what we need to avoid. We need to learn the lessons of the past.

“If anyone thinks that they can intimidate me or the Ulster Unionist Party, they clearly don’t know me or understand the party I represent.”

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis condemned the attack on Mr Beattie’s office as despicable and cowardly.

He said it followed “despicable” action on Friday, referring to the security alert involving Mr Coveney.

“I think it’s right that everybody condemns both those actions. Obviously, one is particularly serious, what happened on the 25th, but there is no excuse for the kind of behaviour we saw yesterday,” he added.

Asked during a meeting of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee whether he would urge a tempering of the protests, Mr Lewis said he wanted to be careful around his comments during the Assembly election period.

“I would defend people’s right to peaceful protest, that is part of British society, it’s part of freedom of speech,” he told MPs.

Brandon Lewis (Aaron Chown/PA)

“But it should be peaceful protest done in the right way. If people have a view about it, we need to defend their right to make sure their view is heard, but they should be going about it the right way, they should not be doing it in a way that causes harm to others and disrupts other people’s lives.”

Ms Hanna pressed Mr Lewis over the dangers of inflammatory language, raising the deaths of three young boys, Jason, Mark and Richard Quinn, who were killed as they slept in their home in Ballymoney, Co Antrim, by a loyalist firebomb in 1998 during the Drumcree stand-off.

Mr Lewis responded: “As politicians we all have a duty to think about the language we’re using and be very aware of the fact that language has consequences, and what we say has consequences.”

Earlier, Sir Jeffrey condemned the violent incidents in north Belfast and Portadown.

“Violence can have no part to play in resolving our political issues in Northern Ireland,” he told a business event in Belfast on Monday.

“It never had, it never will, and I would say to whoever is responsible for this attack, and indeed whoever was responsible for what happened on Friday in terms of the event attended by the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, that this contributes nothing to our opposition to the protocol, our desire to find solutions.

“It is only through politics we will find those solutions.

“So I’m absolutely clear – these attacks are wrong, I condemn them, they have no place and no part to play in the future of Northern Ireland.”

The office of UUP leader Doug Beattie was vandalised (UUP/PA)

Sir Jeffrey said there is nothing wrong with “peaceful protest”, but stressed there is a need for people to use “careful” language.

“I think we should continue to encourage a culture of respect,” he said.

“We do have different opinions, but we should differ well. I think the language we use is important. I don’t think it’s wrong for people to engage in peaceful protest but certainly we need to be careful about what we say. And I always am.”

Sinn Fein Upper Bann MLA John O’Dowd condemned the attack on Mr Beattie’s office.

“Those intent on whipping up tensions and dragging society back will not succeed, we will continue to move forward,” he said.

“This is a time for political leadership and those with influence should work to reduce tensions and ensure these types of attack do not continue.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the UUP leader had taken a “principled position” on the rallies.

“I know that it is not easy to tell hard truths to your supporters,” he said.

“It would have been easier for Doug to sit silently at these rallies and hope to benefit from people who are being whipped up into a frenzy. He deserves credit for taking this stand.”

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