Can the leader of the moderate Ulster Unionist Party arrest the demoralisation caused by the NI Protocol and a weak justice system?

Published: 2 September 2021

There is movement afoot in Northern Irish politics. After years of a dispiriting stalemate, with two dominant parties that loathe each other – the DUP and Sinn Fein – splitting power and patronage between them while doling out the minimum concessions to the other three parties in the executive, there’s a chance of real change in the assembly elections next May. In nationalism, for now Sinn Fein seems impregnable, but Unionism is a different story.

A new poll heralds a potential earthquake in the Unionist camp, with support for the dominant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) down to 13 per cent (from 29 per cent in 2017), the tiny, uncompromising Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) up to 14 per cent and the moderate Ulster Unionist Party at 16 per cent. While the Northern Ireland Protocol is the major cause of the anger and despair in Unionist ranks, a big force for positive change is UUP leader Doug Beattie, the new kid on the block (admittedly 55).

Beattie, a politician since 2014, is a member of the Stormont Assembly, but after just three months as leader of the UUP he has changed the conversation and many people’s perceptions, not least because his life experience has been so unlike that of the average provincial politician.

This week, Captain Beattie will have been thinking of Afghanistan, where his bravery during fighting in Helmand Province won him the Military Cross and is the inspiration for his second book, Task Force Helmand. Along the way, in his 28 years of service in the Royal Irish Rangers, his awards included the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery, of which he is most proud because it was for saving the lives of enemy soldiers.

He came up the hard way, after a troubled childhood. His mother – whose brother was murdered by the IRA – had died of cancer when he was 14, leaving her alcoholic military husband to bring up five children. As a teenager, illicitly playing with his father’s personal protection weapon, Beattie shot a friend in the head. Although the friend survived – as did their friendship – this traumatic experience helped to propel Beattie into the Army at 16 with no educational qualifications. He served in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Northern Ireland, became regimental sergeant major and was commissioned in 2005.

I was greatly impressed by his first book, the best-selling An Ordinary Soldier, which is dominated by his rare combination of compassion and stark honesty. He prays, but is not keen on organised religion, and has none of the sectarianism that blights Ulster politics. And in terms of identity, he sees himself as a British Unionist with an Irish identity, which he says includes the shamrock, Guinness, Gaelic games, St Patrick’s Day, but also God Save the Queen, the Sash, the Orange Order and Ulster rugby. Asked about his loyalties, he said: “I’m extremely loyal to my family, friends, political party, to the ideals that I think are right and to the people of Northern Ireland.”

Personally liberal, he supported abortion and single-sex marriage, but is utterly respectful of those who think otherwise. And although members are required to sign up to the UUP’s values, his is a very broad church.

Like the other two Unionist parties, he sees the protocol as disastrous for the province, but as a pragmatist, his priority is to make Northern Ireland work. The DUP’s change of leader from Arlene Foster to Jeffrey Donaldson has not prevented voters from blaming that party for allowing the imposition of a border in the Irish Sea. The TUV, led by the impressive barrister Jim Allister, has won loyalist support by backing furious protests against the protocol, which they see as an attack on the very identity of Northern Ireland, but it is a one-man operation. Next May, with proportional representation, Unionism should almost certainly have more votes than nationalism, but it is likely that Sinn Fein will be the biggest party and net the top job.

Unionism’s biggest problems are its sense of betrayal by the British Government (which faces serious trouble if the problems with the protocol are not sorted), demoralisation because of the perceived weakness of the justice system in standing up to republicans, and general loss of faith in their politicians. Beattie has an opportunity, but a hell of a challenge.

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