I want to promote progressive and inclusive trade unionism with a welcoming approach
As I take the lead of the Ulster Unionist Party, I am aware that as a party we have a lot of issues to deal with, but I will not put the party ahead of the country and therefore my priority is the Ireland of the North and its people.
I do not see loyalty through the prism of paramilitary groups. These groups need to evolve and I will work to help them do so in order to create space for loyalty to flourish as a socially liberal and forward thinking community that I know.
It is time for us to come together and that requires political unionism to achieve grassroots loyalty and begin to represent its concerns. It requires less talking and more listening, less talking and more work, less suits and ties and more sleeves rolled up. We need to make connections, but loyalty also needs to make connections by reaching out to offer meetings and distance itself from illegal organizations.
But if the vision of a union of people, which I really have, focuses only on loyalists and trade unionists, then I immediately failed. The reality is that there are those who don’t identify with me, and they need the same level of commitment. If they want to live here and make this place work for everyone, we share the same goal.
There are people of nationalist descent who may see themselves well through an Irish identity, but who may actually want to stay in Northern Ireland as it is, a great little nation as part of something bigger with all the advantages that this brings. For them, their identity concerns their culture and their history. If that culture is respected, which allows them to be who they want to be, then I believe they would be willing to support me in making Northern Ireland work.
Of course, there are those who have one goal: to create a united Ireland. It is a righteous aspiration, just as my wish to promote and strengthen the UK is a righteous aspiration. This difference is easily understood and we must all respect this difference.
There is no column in which I criticize the SDLP or Sinn Féin for not taking part in the planning discussion on how to mark Northern Ireland’s centenary. I can understand their position, but I find myself facing criticism because I will not participate in a discussion on how to achieve a united Ireland. Surely people can see that this is an unreasonable request, and a degree of understanding, as I have shown, stops unnecessary divisions.
The Northern Ireland Protocol creates deeper divisions within our society, making reconciliation more difficult. As a trade unionist, I cannot stand idly by and watch the Belfast accord being undermined by a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
As a group, we didn’t stay silent and watched this car crash unfold. We raised the issues and the warnings when the Brexit referendum was in full swing. We reported concerns about the protocol as early as October 2019.
We must now find a way forward. We can look back and see that when the DUP wielded influence it went for short term money instead of securing our long term future. His DNA is all over the protocol. The Ulster Unionist Party looks to the future and how we rectify the strategic mistakes of the DUP.
The UK government has been frightened by threats of a return to violence and by an EU playing hard in bringing the US into the equation. It allowed an Irish Sea border to separate our country in the form of the protocol and in so doing upset the fine balance of the Belfast agreement.
We have proposed solutions and suggested mitigations in order to create space to find an alternative. We have spoken and will continue to talk to anyone who can handle this issue in order to make Northern Ireland work.
Source of concern
We accept that for our nationalist friends and neighbors, a border with infrastructure on the island would be a source of concern. Therefore, they must also understand that a border in the Irish Sea gives rise to the same concern for trade 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 gone through a pandemic where our membership in the UK has given us the resources to deal with it. The vaccination program has enabled Northern Ireland’s Minister of Health to vaccinate faster than many other countries. Financial grants from London improve the standard of living for many people in our society.
I want to promote and develop a confident, progressive and inclusive unionism with an agile goal and a welcoming approach that truly strengthens the union.
A “union of persons” is not an abstract slogan. It is a vision for Northern Ireland, a vision for trade unionism and a vision for the future. I am determined to make this a reality.
Doug Beattie is the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party