On 1st July last year I stood before you as your newly elected leader and I said that this party would be guided by five core objectives, the first of which was to remove the Irish Sea border’s pernicious impact on our trading and constitutional position.
That morning I also said that politics was not about being in office but about using all the experience, skill and support at my disposal to help make Northern Ireland a better place and to secure our position within the United Kingdom.
That remains this party’s core focus.
Over recent months we have sought to make the case that the Protocol is damaging the delicate political and constitutional balance in Northern Ireland and beyond, and that its economic impact has harmed Northern Ireland.
We have reminded the Government of their promise in the New Decade, New Approach Agreement to protect Northern Ireland’s place within the UK Internal Market. This commitment was the basis upon which we re-entered the Executive in early 2020 and have participated in the political institutions since then. To date, this commitment has not been honoured by the UK Government.
We are clear that the Protocol represents an existential threat to the future of Northern Ireland’s place within the Union. The High Court has ruled that the Protocol suspends key elements of the Acts of Union and specifically Article 6, which previously guaranteed the right of every citizen and business in Northern Ireland to trade freely with the rest of the United Kingdom. The longer the protocol remains, the more it will harm the Union itself.
There can be no doubt that we have made progress in convincing many of the merits of our case. Indeed, even our political opponents now talk less about its rigorous implementation and more about the need to find solutions.
Having previously said the Protocol could not be altered, the European Union has returned to the table, publishing proposals of their own.
We have made progress in focusing minds on this. It is only through our determination that the EU in particular and the UK Government are back at the negotiating table.
The Government now accepts the harm the Protocol is doing and appears to accept that not only is change required but that it must be secured if the gains made as a result of recent political progress are not to be squandered.
However, every day Northern Ireland is subjected to some new Protocol problem that bedevils a business, a consumer, a sector or the population as a whole.
Every single Northern Ireland elected representative knows well the number of hours that have been spent trying to advise constituents about navigating the new arrangements born out of the Protocol.
In the 217 days that I have been leader of this Party, the Northern Ireland Protocol has cost our economy five hundred and thirty-five million pounds.
That’s £2.5 million pounds every day.
That’s over £100,000 per hour.
Independent reports have concluded that the Protocol does not deliver the best of both worlds.
Beyond costing our economy one hundred thousand pounds per hour;
- it has driven up haulage costs between GB and NI by 27%;
- it has placed a border between us and our most important trading partner – we do four times more purchases from Great Britain than with the Republic of Ireland and the EU;
- and the Protocol has jeopardised our medicine supply in the middle of a health pandemic – our Department of Health was able to point to hundreds of medicine supply chains which could have dried up.
Around kitchen tables each evening families are feeling the squeeze from soaring energy bills.
People are debating whether to switch on their heating and yet the stark reality is that were the Government to give a VAT holiday on energy bills, Northern Ireland households would not benefit because of the Protocol.
Because of the Protocol, our own Government would not be able to help its own citizens.
In September I set out clearly why the Protocol needed to be rejected, and replaced with arrangements that respected Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. At that time I indicated the steps this party would take.
I warned that as leader of the DUP, I was 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.
I was pleased that we were able to co-operate with the leaders of the other unionist parties to unite in opposition to the Protocol and to publish the Unionist Declaration on the Northern Ireland Protocol on 28th September.
Over the last number of months some urged us to act in this way or that and to move with haste.
Some have urged no action at all.
But this party has worked to its strategic plan whilst allowing time and space for the negotiations between the UK Government and the European Union to progress.
The Government knows that the Protocol does not enjoy the support of the Unionist community and Brussels can be in no doubt that the Protocol has cast its long shadow over Northern Ireland’s political arrangements at Stormont.
It has been a long established norm that arrangements and agreements can only flourish when supported by both Unionists and Nationalists.
Indeed one of the most disturbing characteristics of this period is the total disregard of this principle by Brussels, Dublin and the Protocol cheerleaders in Northern Ireland.
It’s as if unionists are to be seen but not heard.
Now is the moment when we say “Enough”.
We’ve had enough of being told we must stand by previous agreements, yet the same people have destroyed the Belfast Agreement’s cross community consent pillar.
We’ve had enough of Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Alliance Party seeking the ‘rigorous implementation’ of a Protocol which is a bad deal for Northern Ireland.
We’ve had enough of governments talking about power sharing but ignoring the fact that every elected unionist in Northern Ireland rejects the Irish Sea border.
We’ve had enough of Sinn Fein preaching equality, yet the Sinn Fein museums Minister won’t provide funding to mark Her Majesty The Queen’s forthcoming Platinum Jubilee - being the longest reigning monarch in our history.
We’ve had enough of Sinn Fein lecturing us about respect, yet their Finance Minister blocked a rose bush being planted to mark 100 years of Northern Ireland’s centenary.
If we are to move to the next stage of building a shared future, then humiliation of one side by the other is not the answer. We will not achieve reconciliation through retribution.
Therefore, now is the moment to repair our politics, reset relations and restore fairness for all.
Now is the moment to send the clear signal that we want
Stormont free from the long shadows of the Protocol - the Irish Sea
border must go.
For all our citizens we ask for nothing more than arrangements that fully respect Northern Ireland’s position as a constituent and integral part of the United Kingdom.
Some people have said that the EU has already demonstrated pragmatism by agreeing solutions on issues like second-hand cars and steel.
But we can and must do better than that.
We can do better than saddle future generations with whack-a-mole politics between London and Brussels.
Every time we discover another supply chain problem it takes months to find a solution.
Such a reactionary approach does not give us a foundation to build stability in Northern Ireland.
It does the opposite.
There is a better way forward.
A way that can truly deliver the best of both worlds. Where goods destined to stay in Northern Ireland are not checked upon arrival to Northern Ireland.
We have previously outlined how we appreciated the need for the European Union to protect the integrity of its single market borders.
There are solutions if the political will is there.
From the outset unionism has been reasonable and we have been patient.
When Brussels and London told us they needed space to reach an agreed outcome, we gave space.
We wanted to be reasonable rather than reactionary.
We wanted to be practical rather than pedantic.
I want devolution to work and to be respected across all communities in Northern Ireland.
But for it to work Unionists as well as Nationalists must be respected.
We want a devolved government that delivers for everyone in Northern Ireland and that can build on stable foundations.
These institutions only have value if they enjoy the confidence and support of the people they were established to serve.
They only have meaning if they are delivering fairly for all our people based on the principles of equality and mutual respect on which they were founded.
It’s time to restore fairness.
Lord Trimble, one of the key authors of the Belfast Agreement said 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.”
For many who don’t live here Northern Ireland is a subject, but for us Northern Ireland is home.
And because of that we care passionately about doing all we can to make Northern Ireland a success.
I have spent most of my public life working for peace and stability in Northern Ireland.
Many of us have been involved in what seems like an endless cycle of talks initiatives and processes.
The ultimate goal was to build political relationships that worked for everyone and giving people who live here control over their own affairs.
Respecting difference and securing consensus became part of the political language in Northern Ireland.
Yet, the Protocol shreds all that work.
If this Irish Sea border is left in place, then the divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom will grow and without a single vote cast, the Protocol will have reoriented our supply chains and our economy away from Great Britain.
Laws will be made and implemented that impact every citizen
without ANY local representative having shaped them or voted upon them.
There comes a moment when we have to take tough decisions if we are to build for the future. Such a moment has arrived.
Despite the sometimes positive noises the talks on the Protocol have thus far failed to come to a conclusion - not because of a lack of time, but rather because minds do not seem to be focused on fixing our problems.
Without resolute action on our part these talks could drift on for many further months or years. That is bad for Northern Ireland.
The UK Government in particular has a responsibility to deliver its commitment set out in New Decade New Approach to ensure Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the United Kingdom internal market.
For our part, we have been patient and given space for negotiations to make progress.
We have sought to have discussions with other Parties in the Executive on the legality of the checks being carried out at our Ports, but these discussions have been blocked by Sinn Fein.
Consequently, our Minister Edwin Poots MLA yesterday took action by issuing an instruction to stop these unlawful, unnecessary, and unacceptable checks at our ports.
Having already withdrawn my Ministers from the North South Ministerial Council, I warned that, in the absence of decisive action to restore Northern Ireland’s place in the UK Internal Market, we would take further decisive action. I have given the Government and the EU more than enough time to act.
The time has now come for us to act and for the people to have their say.
Consequently the First Minister Paul Givan MLA has this afternoon tendered his resignation to the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly. His resignation will take effect from midnight tonight.
I want to thank Paul for the way he has undertaken his duties as First Minister over the last eight months particularly in the midst of the pandemic.
Other DUP Ministers will remain in post in advance of the election and we will work to ensure, where possible, legislation is able to continue through the Assembly prior to any dissolution date set by the Secretary of State.
I am glad that the freedom and liberty we enjoy as servants of the people, enables us to take our case to the people of Northern Ireland.
It is time for the people across Northern Ireland to have their say
We will take our case to every county, to every town and to every village across this Province.
In doing so we make it clear that unless the Protocol is replaced by arrangements that restore Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom we will not give our consent to consigning Northern Ireland to second best.
We want to make Northern Ireland work and we want to see everyone succeed and to realise their potential.
We want to rebuild our economy and our society after the pandemic.
We want to invest more in our health service, coupled with much needed reform, so that we can properly tackle our hospital waiting lists.
We want to help skill up and equip our young people for the future and help hard-pressed families with childcare.
But all of this can only be achieved with stability and fairness.
We value our British identity and we respect those who value and cherish their Irish identity.
All we ask in return is that others respect ours.
We want to cherish those who have come to call Northern Ireland home, from wherever they hail.
We value being part of the United Kingdom.
We want to celebrate and promote the place we all call home.
But to achieve this we have to tackle the instability eating away at the heart of our institutions if we are to build on firmer foundations.
The challenges ahead seem many but the prize to be secured will be worth all the effort.