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Doug Beattie backs creation of cross-border protocol body

Fresh from celebrating 100 days as leader of the Ulster Unionists, Doug Beattie tells Political Correspondent John Manley about his new vision for unionism and how the creation of a cross-border body can solve problems with the protocol...

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie. Picture by Hugh Russell

DOUG Beattie has backed the creation of an additional cross-border body to manage the protocol as the British government again extended grace periods for checks in the Irish Sea.

In an interview with The Irish News to mark 100 days in charge, the UUP leader accepts the Irish Sea border is here to stay but says it should mirror the invisibility of the land border. 

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BOTH in his demeanour and politically, Doug Beattie is a far cry from Jim Molyneaux or David Trimble. Yet he is clear in his ambition to return the party that once dominated Northern Ireland politics to its past glories.

He takes the result of the latest LucidTalk poll, which placed the Ulster Unionists three percentage points ahead of the DUP on 16 per cent, with a pinch of salt but insists that at the next Stormont election he'll be "running to be first minister".

The Upper Bann MLA's main focus at present is on trying to lift unionism's "confidence and positivity". The former British army captain decries unionism's reaction to provocation by what he terms "fence kickers".

"There are people out there who kick the fence and the rabid dog comes out showing its teeth, so they keep kicking and the dog keeps barking – unionism is showing itself in a really negative light," he says.

Mr Beattie is developing an alternative vision for a "union of people", where he says there's an acceptance of everybody regardless of "colour, religion or sexual orientation".

"Unionism has put its back against the wall and is too busy pointing out all the negative stuff that’s out there, rather than saying ‘there’s a problem out there, what are we going to do to fix it?’," he says.

"Those people who are representing unionism are perpetuating negativity."

The Ulster Unionist leader says unionism continually "falls into the trap... whether it’s around culture, flags, policing". He believes there's a "feeling like we’re giving something away".

"But we’re not giving anything away, what we’re doing is sharing and by sharing we make this a better place, and by making Northern Ireland a better place we’re not just protecting the union, but we’re actually promoting the union," he says.

He is unapologetic about his fondness for Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, describing his DUP counterpart as a "decent human being".

UU Doug Beattie talks to the Irish News.Picture by Hugh Russell.

However, he says they have "politically different ways of doing things".

"I sit in the centre ground – and I sit in that centre ground because I believe in a confident, prosperous, inclusive union," he says.

He'll countenance unionist co-operation on matters of mutual concern but appears determined to reject any notion of electoral pacts.

"If there’s something out there that’s a unionist cause that we need to deal with, then it’s right that we all stand together and we try to deal with it in an inclusive way - that’s where I see cooperation," he says.

"But this unity stuff, set it to one side – if you’re talking about pacts, the answer is no. We won’t do pacts. People don’t want them."

Mr Beattie believes the UUP is now "transfer friendly" and a "force to be reckoned with again".

"We need to stand on our own two feet – joining a pact and taking somebody else’s policies is not the way I do business," he says.

A strong regional economy is a key plank in his vision, believing that by giving people a "sense of purpose and fulfilment", you get buy-in from all sections of society.

However, at the moment he sees the economic outlook as uncertain due to the protocol, which has created a "feast or famine", helping some companies prosper but forcing others "close to the brink".

Mr Beattie didn't vote for Brexit but accepts the outcome of the UK-wide vote. His approach to Brexit now is "let's make it work" and likewise the protocol, which he insists the Ulster Unionists saw coming.

"We warned about the protocol in 2019 and gave practical solutions but people ignored us when we tried to fix the problem that was coming down stream," he says.

"Now everybody else is just being negative, instead of pointing out where the problems lie."

He argues that "some form of agreement is here to stay".

"You can change the name all you want and give it whatever label but something has to remain because we are the frontier between the EU and the United Kingdom," he says, acknowledging that "you cannot move the regulatory border".

Doug Beattie is adamant 'there won't be a border poll for 20 years'. Picture by Hugh Russell

But the Upper Bann MLA believes the invisibility that has characterised the Irish border for more than two decades should be replicated in the Irish Sea.

"The east-west border needs to be invisible too, so it doesn’t affect people on a day-to-day basis," he says.

"Goods that are going from GB to NI do not need to be checked."

He says the British government's command paper "fixes 90 per cent of problems" and in order to overcome the "democratic deficit" created by the protocol, he advocates the creation of a seventh north-south body, facilitated by the Good Friday Agreement.

"People may criticise the Belfast Agreement but it does give us mechanisms that can help us," he says.

"We have six cross-border bodies, so why not create a seventh that deals with the trade between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic and de facto trade that goes on into the EU?" he says.

"It’s like devolving the problem to Northern Ireland, and if you devolve the problem to NI with a cross-border body that looks at compliance and education, which can then do checks, it becomes a body that can deal with the whole issue."

Rather than posing a threat to unionism, he says "this seventh body actually protects us".

"It gives us a say and an input into what’s going on here in Northern Ireland – it takes away that democratic deficit," he says.

But surely his "pragmatic" solution conflicts with unionist orthodoxy?

"If somebody’s accusing me of using innovation to overcome a problem they can call me a Lundy or whatever they want," he says.

"What it’s using is the very mechanisms that we created in 1998, which happen to work very well every single day. It's the same agreement that allows us to have cooperation on children's heart services and cancer services in the north-west."

By resolving concerns around the protocol rather than seeking to destroy it, Mr Beattie believes Northern Ireland will be in a position to prosper, a situation which he argues helps strengthen the union.

"If you make those changes that we’re suggesting, that the command paper has suggested, and you give us a say in the whole thing, then there's a chance that business will look at what we have as a model and they will invest in Northern Ireland," he says.

"Right now, they’re not going to invest in Northern Ireland because it’s not stable, government isn’t even stable because of this issue – it’s on the cusp of collapse every day."

On the prospect of a referendum on Irish unity, the Ulster Unionist leader is adamant that "there won't be a border poll for 20 years".

"We've not moved to a position anywhere close to the circumstances being met for the secretary of state to call a referendum," he says.

"It's nowhere close and the longer things go on there’s a growing number of people who see Northern Ireland as their home. Some of those people would vote for a united Ireland but I believe the majority just want Northern Ireland to work where it is."

He says people shouldn't expect unionists "to be involved in a conversation about a united Ireland" but has been "reassured" by his conversations with Micheál Martin and is satisfied that the taoiseach's Shared Island Unit "is not about creating a united Ireland".

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