- The Protocol had two iterations in October 2019
- In the Executive in 2021, the DUP opposition remained with some nuance
- All of the main Unionist parties have opposed the Protocol
- Polls also suggest a lack of support for the NI Protocol amongst the Unionist community, more generally
On 15 March, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP told the National Press Club in Washington DC:
“Unionism rejected the NI Protocol from day one.”
In considering this claim, it is important to take into account the positions of other parties who designate as “Unionist” – as well as the views of those who describe themselves as “Unionist”, more generally. When exploring whether the DUP have opposed the NI Protocol, it is important to ask: which one? And what constitutes “day one” with regard to the NI Protocol?
- The pre-agreement proposal on Northern Ireland
On 2nd October 2019, Boris Johnson developed proposals that he termed a “fair and reasonable compromise” on Northern Ireland. These proposals stated “we are now proposing a new Protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland.” The proposal had five main elements but the important two for this claim are the third and fourth:
“it provides for the potential creation of an all-island regulatory zone on the island of Ireland, covering all goods including agrifood. For as long as it exists, this zone would eliminate all regulatory checks for trade in goods between Northern Ireland and Ireland by ensuring that goods regulations in Northern Ireland are the same as those in the rest of the EU.”
“[t]his regulatory zone must depend on the consent of those affected by it. This is essential to the acceptability of arrangements under which part of the UK accepts the rules of a different political entity. It is fundamental to democracy. We are proposing that the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly should have the opportunity to endorse those arrangements before they enter into force, that is, during the transition period, and every four years afterwards. If consent is not secured, the arrangements will lapse.”
The DUP endorsed these proposals with party leader, Arlene Foster arguing;
“We believe this is a serious and sensible way forward to have engagement with the European Union in a way that allows us all in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, therefore we will be supporting this plan”
For the DUP position here is the critical part of the endorsement, these proposals would allow Northern Ireland to opt into whatever regulations had the consent of Northern Ireland’s elected representatives to do so.
“What it does is allows us to leave the European Union customs union, it allows us to leave the single market and then we opt in if we are not in the position to put in alternative arrangements at that time”
Foster is clear in her remarks that from the DUP point of view, consent meant both the Unionist and Nationalist communities. The importance is stressed that Northern Ireland decides what EU rules it wants to opt into.
Under these proposals, Northern Ireland could have diverged from the rest of the UK if the Assembly had voted to do so.
- Other Unionist parties
However, the Ulster Unionist Peer, Lord Empey argued the DUP’s endorsement of these plans helped create a regulatory border down the Irish sea. When Boris Johnson published his original proposals on the Protocol on 2nd October 2019, the UUP voiced their opposition with then party leader, Robin Swann saying;
“The Prime Minister and the DUP are fooling no-one with these proposals. This new protocol should be deeply concerning for all those who have the long term economic and constitutional welfare of Northern Ireland and its people at heart.”
They also opposed the second iteration of the Protocol in the EU/UK Withdrawal Agreement;
The other main Unionist party, the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) said made similar arguments to the Ulster Unionists with party leader, Jim Allister opposition the first version of the Northern Ireland Protocol on 2nd October 2019. They also strongly opposed the final Withdrawal Agreement with an emphasis on the Protocol.
- The Withdrawal Agreement – October 2019
On 19th October 2019, Boris Johnson unveiled the second EU-UK Withdrawal agreement to the House of Commons in a special sitting. The Northern Ireland Protocol he announced did contain consent mechanisms for the Northern Ireland Assembly, but this required a simple majority, rather than the cross community consent the DUP argued for three weeks earlier.
- Democratic Unionist response to the agreed Protocol
When the Northern Ireland Protocol was unveiled in a special sitting of the House of Commons on Saturday 19th October 2019, and the DUP Deputy Leader, Nigel Dodds outlined his opposition. Similarly, at the DUP conference in later that month, party leader Arlene Foster reflected this view
By February 2021, the messaging from the DUP shifted against the Protocol and towards building a united Unionist response. Following a period of transition in the party in April and May of 2021, the party’s position shifted towards abolition of the sea border altogether under Jeffrey Donaldson:
“The Irish Sea Border is not just a threat to the economic integrity of the United Kingdom; it is a threat to the living standards of the people of Northern Ireland and the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. In the weeks ahead our goal is to remove the Irish Sea border and to preserve and protect the internal UK market.”
- What we know about general unionist support for the NI Protocol
Amongst the wider Unionist voting base, a January 2023 Lucid Talk poll found that 21% of unionists think the DUP should re-enter government regardless of what happens with the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Previously, a Lucid Talk poll in March 2022 showed that opposing the protocol and a commitment to the Union were higher priorities for Unionist voters than the cost of living crisis, with 61% of those surveyed said commitment to the Union was a priority with opposition to the Protocol coming in second at 54%.
An April 2022 a poll conducted by the Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool found that 21% Unionists indicated that the NI Protocol was the most important issue that concerns them (in contrast to 2% of Nationalists, and 4% of neither Unionist or Nationalist respondents). Similarly, in 2021, Lucid Talk surveyed Unionist voters’ attitudes to the Protocol with 91% supporting its abolition and just 6% supporting keeping it in place.
However, attitudes may be changing with time and political developments. With the caveat that it is an individual poll by the Irish News and University of Liverpool’s Institute for Irish Studies on the Windsor Framework – the recent poll found that 46% of unionists support the Framework; with 39% neither supporting/opposing; and 16% opposing.
When asking whether the DUP have opposed the Protocol, It is important to ask: which one? Within a short space of time, the original British government proposal in early October 2019 was adopted in part by the Withdrawal Agreement. However, the original proposal could have seen regulatory divergences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. It is also worth noting that in Johnson’s original proposal text, it does not specifically mention cross community consent. Even though this was something that the DUP were clearly in favour of.
The DUP along with other Unionist parties have all opposed the Protocol as outlined in the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement. Polls also suggested a lack of support for the NI Protocol among the Unionist community, more generally.