Sir Jeffrey Donaldson - "now is the time to act"

Speech by DUP Leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP

Delivered in the La Mon Hotel, Belfast on Thursday 9 September 2021.

Just two months ago I was honoured to be elected as the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.

I took on the post knowing the challenges that lay ahead, but I did so to seek to make Northern Ireland a better place and the Union more secure.

At that time I promised to bring forward a plan to navigate our way through the challenges and, in particular, how the problems created by the protocol could be addressed.

Right at the outset I want to stress that the problems of the protocol are not simply unionist issues, but affect the lives and livelihoods of everyone in Northern Ireland.

Just as everyone is affected by the implementation of the protocol, we can all benefit from solutions to these problems as well.

I wanted to take time over the last few months to meet with people from across Northern Ireland, to consider our options and to set out a plan that is in the long-term interests of our country.

There are those who say the Protocol is here to stay and advocate working it and there are some who limit their ambitions to addressing its worst aspects.

However what flows from the protocol is so fundamental and the problems it creates so great that the consequences of adopting such a strategy would damage Northern Ireland.

It is not a path we will tread.

Today I want to use this opportunity to set out our strategic blueprint for the months that lie ahead.

I am sure it will not find favour with some who urge business as usual, but that approach is doomed to fail in both economic and political terms.

It is far better that we grasp the nettle now and have the matter settled once and for all.

These are important times for unionism and for Northern Ireland.

The next few months will determine the future direction of our Province and our country for decades to come.

The stakes could not be higher and the responsibility upon us could not be greater.

These are difficult times and the scale of our response must match the seriousness of the challenge we face.

In relation to the protocol, at issue is one simple question.

Are we prepared to acquiesce in the undermining of our economic prosperity and the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom, including the very Act of Union itself?

For me and for my party the unambiguous answer is, no!

As leader of the DUP, I am not prepared to lend my hand to a protocol which so fundamentally undermines the Union and the economic integrity of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland’s position in it.

Two years ago, the United Kingdom was in what was probably its worst constitutional crisis in 100 years.

In that maelstrom the Ireland / Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed by the UK Government to ‘get Brexit done’.

What was obvious to us then and I think to almost everyone else now, is that that same protocol threatens to provoke the most serious constitutional crisis in Northern Ireland since our formation a century ago.

Now, even those who negotiated the protocol on behalf of the U.K. in 2019, accept that it did not find the right balance and that a new balance must be found.

Since becoming leader, I have taken the opportunity to meet people from right across the community throughout Northern Ireland.

I have used this time, not just to speak to people, but importantly to listen to them as well.

When I ran for the leadership of this party, I said that addressing the protocol would be my top priority.

I did so not because this issue was inherently more important than many of the other challenges that lie before us, but because I know that unless the protocol is sorted, the opportunity to meet the other challenges will not exist.

From my conversations over these last few months, I know that this is the view of unionists throughout Northern Ireland as well.

When I was first elected leader, I told the Secretary of State that the protocol would not be acceptable to the unionist community and unless the problems it created were addressed, there would be significant consequences.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that this continues to be my view.

The political, economic and constitutional difficulties created by the protocol threaten our prosperity in Northern Ireland and the quality of our status within the United Kingdom.

Most fundamentally the constitutional guarantee which has underpinned political progress in Northern Ireland has been fundamentally undermined.

The so-called consent principle has been reduced to the final transfer of sovereignty and provides no protection against any creeping erosion of Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom.

This was not the basis on which the Belfast Agreement, and subsequent agreements, were agreed, nor was it the basis on which it was sold to the people of Northern Ireland.

Indeed even Lord Trimble, one of the key authors of the Agreement has recently written that, “the Northern Ireland Protocol has not only subverted the main safeguards within the Belfast Agreement causing civic unrest and political uncertainty, it is also damaging the Northern Ireland economy, disrupting supply chains, inflating prices and diverting trade from our main market in Great Britain.”

I say not as a threat, but as a matter of political reality that our political institutions will not survive a failure to resolve the problems that the protocol has created.

Neither will they survive an indefinite ‘stand still’ period; urgent action is needed.

As someone who believes in devolution and who seeks to return to the Assembly, this is not something I want to see.

While I welcome the announcement of further extensions to the grace periods, long term solutions are required and political stability secured.

This morning I want to set out our strategy to address the problems with the protocol and to offer a solution that is capable of delivering a better way forward and one that can bring unionism and Northern Ireland together.

Since the start of July, the streets have been quieter in terms of violence, but I fear that unless we grapple with this issue, this will prove to be merely a pause, rather than an end to the disorder.

I want to thank those in my party and elsewhere who have helped work to calm the situation on the ground in recent times, but it would be an act of folly to believe that the anger has receded, or the danger has passed.

Undoubtedly the Command Paper also helped calm the mood on the ground over the summer and afforded us all a window of opportunity.

There can be no doubt that the Northern Ireland Protocol is not just a threat to the economic integrity of the United Kingdom, it is having real world impacts on our economy.

Senior Economist at the University of Ulster Business School, Dr Esmond Birnie recently suggested that the cost of the Northern Ireland protocol could be in the region of £850 million per year.

That is money we simply cannot afford to lose.

At the most practical level the protocol is having serious impacts on many aspects of life in Northern Ireland.

And though I am alarmed by the constitutional implications of the protocol, it is assuredly not simply a unionist issue.

Business leaders tell us that it is an existential threat to many businesses in Northern Ireland and the position in relation to medicine and food is particularly pressing and deeply concerning.

The idea that the EU can prevent people in Northern Ireland having equal access to vital medicines as is available in the rest of our own country is utterly reprehensible and indefensible.

In recent days Marks & Spencer chairman Archie Norman warned that customers in Northern Ireland could face a “substantial reduction in food supply” and price increases later this year.

It also means less choice on Amazon, an inability to get plants from Great Britain, a failure to benefit from cheaper goods from global trade deals in the same way that British citizens elsewhere in the UK will be able to do so.

Some of the issues result directly from the terms of the protocol whilst others are a result of it just being too difficult for businesses in Great Britain trading with Northern Ireland.

Those who seek to dismiss or diminish the impact of the protocol need to remember that because of grace periods, many of the most economically damaging aspects of the protocol have not yet come into force.

The truth is that we cannot afford for them ever to do so.

It is tempting for some to indulge in a blame game as to how we find ourselves in this situation but what we must concentrate on now is how we get out of it.

In this regard I welcomed the publication of the Government’s Command paper over the summer as an important first step.

And while we welcomed the Command Paper as a step in the right direction, in the absence of actual progress, we cannot remain in this political limbo.

The Command Paper gave the clearest evidence that the Government recognises the protocol is unsustainable and that new arrangements must be found.

It recognised the importance of the three key issues of movement, standards and governance.

It is essential that all are addressed and for the absence of doubt, let me be clear this is not simply a question of limiting checks at the border or moving the checks from the border.

It must mean that, save for the most limited circumstances, EU law would not apply in Northern Ireland.

And it must mean that where there is a dispute, we are not being asked to argue our case in front of a judicial system created by one of the parties to that dispute.

The Command Paper states that the conditions already exist to trigger Article 16, both in terms of the societal impacts and also due to the diversion of trade.

This is undoubtedly right, but we share the Government’s preference that these matters are resolved by agreement and we would wish to see arrangements to supersede the protocol as provided for in Article 13.

Despite what some once claimed, the protocol does not give Northern Ireland, ‘the best of both worlds’, but there are alternative arrangements that could and should provide political stability and genuine economic opportunity.

It is neither our wish to undermine the EU Single Market nor is there any possibility of the hardening of the border on the island of Ireland.

But it is wrong to suggest that it takes the rigorous implementation of this protocol to achieve that goal.

Some seem to have forgotten that the protocol is not an end in itself, rather it was intended as ‘a means to an end’.

Regardless of whether others supported the protocol or did not, the reality is clear; it is not working.

It is undermining both business and politics in Northern Ireland.

As a result everyone is impacted.

And it is clearly undermining the fundamental tenets of successive agreements that had been reached.

We are often told that the key purpose of the protocol is protecting the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, but in practice it is doing precisely the opposite.

The Agreement was supposedly designed to protect all communities in Northern Ireland, but to unionists it would appear that there are those in the EU who only seem to be alive to nationalist concerns.

This is not good for the EU or for Northern Ireland.

Through the actions of the EU to date, they are actually imperilling the very agreement they purport to defend.

If history has taught us anything in Northern Ireland it is that there must be a balance and an equilibrium in arrangements.

When one side is out of balance the situation cannot be sustained.

When not a single elected unionist supports the protocol it is clear that balance has been lost.

The EU and the Irish Government tell us they do not wish to do anything to jeopardise peace in Northern Ireland but the fact is that is exactly what is happening with the present arrangements.

If the solutions suggested in the Government’s Command paper were delivered in full then that would go some way to satisfying our tests and restoring the economic integrity of the United Kingdom.

Likewise, the Mutual Enforcement proposals from the Centre for Brexit policy offer a sensible and pragmatic way of approaching the issue.

But what won’t work is mere tinkering or the introduction of a few flexibilities.

A piecemeal solution is not going to work.

Instead, we need significant and substantial changes that can meet the seven tests that we set out earlier in the summer.

Let me repeat those tests.

Firstly, any new arrangements must fulfil the guarantee of the Sixth Article of the Act of Union.

Secondly, they must avoid any diversion of trade.

Thirdly, they must not constitute a border in the Irish Sea.

Fourthly, they must give the people of Northern Ireland a say in the making of laws which govern them.

Fifthly, they must result in “no checks on goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain or from Great Britain to Northern Ireland (and remaining in Northern Ireland).

Sixthly, they must ensure no new regulatory borders develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

And seventhly they must preserve the letter and spirit of Northern Ireland’s constitutional guarantee, as set out in numerous documents, but most recently in the Belfast Agreement by requiring the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland for, and in advance of, any diminution in its status as part of the United Kingdom.

These are not unreasonable or novel demands.

They are all based on commitments that have been made to the people of Northern Ireland in one form or another and must be respected.

We have deliberately not been prescriptive about the nature of the outcome we wish to see, rather we have sought to provide the space for creative solutions which respect not just our demands but the concerns of others as well.

While we are flexible as to the precise nature of the solution, we are implacably opposed to the current arrangements.

We recognise the importance of the Single Market to the EU and because of this we are prepared to allow our facilities to be used to check goods that are going on into the EU.

But we are not prepared to accept new checks on goods that are travelling within our own country.

We recognise the complexity of the issues that need to be addressed and do not pretend that there are easy solutions, but nor do we expect the EU to pretend that the present arrangements are working or that the solution is to implement more of the protocol.

To any objective onlooker, it is simply absurd to treat goods moving within the United Kingdom in the same way as goods moving from the Far East to the EU might be treated.

I believe the resolution of these issues is no longer a question of time, it is a question of political will.

I am quite sure that discussions on these issues could go on for months if not years without the prospect of a successful outcome.

This is simply not acceptable, nor indeed is a continual rolling forward of grace periods without the underlying problem being solved.

The uncertainty of the present situation is damaging to Northern Ireland’s economic prospects and is potentially ruinous to our political institutions.

Indeed, delaying making progress makes the situation not easier but more difficult to ultimately resolve.

That is why today I want to set out a timetable to see these issues resolved and to provide a window of opportunity for solutions to be found.

I do this not to be unhelpful, but to focus minds on the solutions that need to be found and to prevent the situation in Northern Ireland spiralling out of control.

I hope that such a framework will allow a measure of political stability to be secured over the coming weeks, but make it very clear that time is short, and consequences will follow.

Some of these consequences we will have control of and some we will not.

At the beginning of the summer the Government announced it was planning this autumn to legislate at Westminster for the cultural package of measures agreed as part of the NDNA over the heads of the Assembly and contrary to the devolution settlement.

The proper place for such legislation is the Northern Ireland Assembly where it can receive the proper scrutiny and a balanced approach.

Such a usurpation of the Assembly’s powers, without the consent of the Assembly, would be difficult at any time.

But undermining the operation of Strand One as well as Strand Three at the same time would further undermine confidence in devolution and the operation of the Assembly from an already low base.

The situation is further exacerbated when the New Decade, New Approach Deal is implemented on a one-sided basis and in the absence of the Government delivering on the NDNA commitment to ensure that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the UK internal market.

For unionists such a situation is both intolerable and unsustainable.

The protocol makes provision for a consent mechanism after four years of its operation, but we do not have four years to get matters resolved.

Equally, kicking the can down the road will merely tighten the knot to a point that the political institutions could not be later recovered.

Today, I am therefore announcing four steps that I propose to take.

Firstly, in relation to Strand Two of the Belfast Agreement, or formal north south relations.

The Belfast Agreement makes it clear that each Strand of the agreement is ‘interlocking and interdependent’.

Since devolution was restored in 2007, we have faithfully worked and fulfilled our responsibilities regarding Strand Two matters.

And let me be clear, as part of the proper functioning of all aspects of the political institutions I want the north south institutions to work.

Post Brexit, north south and east west relationships are, if anything, more important than ever.

But they cannot operate in isolation or while Strand Three, the east west relationship, has been undermined.

There can be no dispute that the fabric of Strand Three has been fundamentally undermined by the protocol.

In such circumstances unionists cannot be expected to operate Strand Two as though nothing had changed.

As I have said before, while the present protocol arrangements remain in place, it cannot be business as usual for north south relations.

That means we must respond not just in words but in actions as well.

We attended the NSMC plenary meeting in July as an act of good faith and to give some space for issues to be resolved.

That has not happened.

I believe now is the time to act.

Therefore, as the protocol issues remain unresolved, the DUP will immediately withdraw from the structures of Strand Two of the Belfast Agreement relating to north south arrangements, while we will ensure important health related matters continue to be addressed on a cooperative basis.

I do so in full knowledge of the knock-on effects that such a move may have and the instability that may result.

But we simply cannot go on like this.

The threat to the political institutions is not from our withdrawal from Strand Two, but from the protocol itself.

The second step I intend to take relates to the operation of the protocol.

Bad as it has been, to date the full impact of the protocol has not yet been felt.

This is partly because of grace periods and partly because the checks that are required by the protocol are not yet being implemented in full.

We have not experienced the full impact of the protocol, but merely the effects of ‘protocol-light’.

I do not pretend that there are easy answers when the law requires one thing and politics demands something else.

Though some unionists would like to, we cannot wish away the fact that the Northern Ireland Protocol is part of domestic UK law.

However, I believe that we can use our position in Ministerial office to the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland.

No one can be in any doubt that the ending of the grace periods would have a devastating impact on Northern Ireland.

That is not something that I am prepared to countenance or be a party to.

Nor should any elected politician in Northern Ireland who cares for our people.

Therefore, regardless of what the position of the UK Government or of the EU, in the future, DUP Ministers would seek to block additional checks at the ports.

And I believe they would have a solid legal basis to do so.

Any decision to intensify checks would have the most profound and significant impact on Northern Ireland.

Under the Northern Ireland Act, such a decision to intensify checks could only by implemented following a decision of the Northern Ireland Executive.

In such circumstances, neither the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister nor his officials have any power to intensify checks, in the absence of Executive agreement.

On behalf of the DUP, I want to make it quite clear that DUP Ministers would use their votes at the Executive to frustrate any such additional checks, now or in the future.

Thirdly, we are also examining the legality of the current checks and whether they should have required Executive approval as well.

We are also exploring whether there is any scope to limit or eradicate the existing checks at the ports which are in addition to those which were in force at the end of 2020.

Legal advice has offered Ministers very little room for manoeuvre in this regard and flexibilities have been exploited to the maximum.

However, we are seeking to revisit this issue to examine every available option.

If in the final analysis those who are democratically elected by the people of Northern Ireland lack the power to prevent such checks, and the protocol issues remain, then the position in office of DUP Ministers would become untenable.

Let me be clear: if the choice is ultimately between remaining in office or implementing the protocol in its present form, then the only option for any unionist Minister would be to cease to hold such office.

This is particularly the case in circumstances where the Government is proceeding to implement the NDNA in a partial and one-sided way by legislating for a culture package at Westminster at a time when the Government has not delivered on its NDNA pledges in relation to restoring Northern Ireland’s place in the UK Single Market.

This is not a sustainable position.

Within weeks it will be clear if there is the basis for the Assembly and Executive to continue in this current mandate or whether there is a need for an Assembly election to refresh our mandate.

And fourthly, in order to maintain the adherence of Northern Ireland to EU law as it evolves, there is a requirement for Northern Ireland Departments and the Northern Ireland Assembly to pass regulations to reflect decisions at an EU level.

It has been said before, but it will be the policy of the DUP to seek to frustrate and prevent such alignment. We cannot and will not accept a situation where we are required to endorse and implement EU laws, whilst having no say in how those laws are formulated.

The Northern Ireland protocol requires certain aspects of EU law to apply in Northern Ireland but this can only happen if they are incorporated into Northern Ireland law.

Over time a failure to incorporate such law will mean that Northern Ireland will increasingly diverge from EU law and would ultimately undermine the operation of the EU Single Market.

We are pledged to make sure that this happens.

While the UK Government also has powers to introduce these regulations at Westminster, to do so in a blanket fashion would further undermine the credibility of the devolved settlement.

As I have said we are totally opposed to the protocol as it presently exists.

We will neither accept it nor will we work it.

In my assessment the time frame for resolving issues can be measured in weeks and not months or years.

As I have said, doing nothing is not a sustainable or a tenable position.

There will be those who will be critical of these announcements today but let me be clear, I take these actions not to undermine our carefully balanced constitutional arrangements but to protect them.

In July the Government took what might have been the first step out of the protocol with the Command Paper, but it will ultimately be judged by what it does next.

It would be a tragedy if the gains of the last two decades were put at risk and if Northern Ireland was plunged back into economic difficulties and political crisis.

This would not be good for unionism or good for Northern Ireland.

For our part we will work to do all in our power to make sure that does not happen.

In spite of all of the difficulties that we face I remain hopeful that we can still emerge from this period with arrangements which can command widespread support within Northern Ireland, arrangements that do not offend unionists, nationalists or others and crucially arrangements which will allow us to create the kind of stability that will be good for investment and economic prosperity.

The prize of a successful outcome is not just for unionism but for all of Northern Ireland and it is not just for the U.K. but for the EU as well.

Just imagine how a deal which satisfies all sides could transform relationships within Northern Ireland and across Europe.

Or what a deal that genuinely represented a better way forward would mean for our future potential.

Think how a stable long-term deal could allow us to plan for the future and how it could allow the U.K. to rebuild its crucial relationship with the European Union in a changing and dangerous world.

It surely cannot be beyond us all to reach an agreement that can allow progress to be made and our peace process secured.

I will not be found wanting to do all in my power to ensure that we can reach solutions to the problems that we face, but nor should there be any doubt that I will not resile from the actions that I have set out.

Thank you.

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