Unionist politicians bicker as election looms

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Loyalist preparations for the Stormont election have been hampered by public infighting and a lack of interest in their protests against Brexit-related port checks.

Senior DUP MP Sammy Wilson blamed TUV leader Jim Allister after he was shouted down at a rally opposing the Irish Protocol of Brexit with cries of ‘traitor’.

Hundreds of people walked in procession behind flute bands at the event in Markethill, County Armagh, but the turnout was far short of the mass demonstration organisers had called for.

Wilson was repeatedly interrupted as he attempted to deliver his speech after Allister, who also addressed the rally, blamed the DUP for the so-called ‘Irish Sea Border’ and the failure to secure a reinforced partition of the island.

The TUV claimed afterwards that the hecklers were infiltrators from the more moderate Alliance Party, an attempt to redirect anger at a mutual enemy which is threatening to eat into their vote share.

The event came on a day when Allister had claimed that the DUP was softening its demands for a hard border and willing to accept some arrangements which treat the Six Counties differently to Britain.

At one point in Wilson’s speech, Allister (pictured, left) was forced to intervene to appeal to those present to stop shouting abuse at the DUP man (right).

Wilson was also forced to beg the crowd: “We are on the same side.” But he later condemned those who turned out, saying they were “completely undermining the strong message the organisers wanted to send out”.

He also condemned Allister’s electoral rhetoric, casting doubt over a potential deal on vote transfers ahead of the election.

“Whilst Jim Allister appealed for respect, it came after he spent ten minutes on the platform whipping up an anti-DUP sentiment in a blatant act of electioneering,” he said.

“Whilst Sir Jeffrey [DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson] has sought to work with every hue of unionism, whether he always agrees with them or not, to get a united front and common cause against the Protocol, it seems Jim is only interested in using the Protocol to promote his and his party’s narrow electoral interests.”

A second ‘anti-Protocol rally’ was called off by the DUP, citing the sudden death last weekend of party Assembly member, Christopher Stalford.

Meanwhile, continuing talks on the protocol between the British government and the EU have failed to make progress. EU negotiators said so far the talks have resulted in “neither a breakthrough nor a breakdown”.

Former DUP First Minister Arlene Foster insisted unionist anti-Protocol protests would become larger and “quite aggressive”. She said the political atmosphere is “not all good” and said Britain needed to trigger Article 16, potentially launching a trade war with the EU, if the DUP’s demands are not met.

For his part, Sinn Féin’s Brexit spokesperson Declan Kearney said the British government should abandon its one-sided approach and act in the interests of the majority of people and businesses.

He said that the solution proposed by the EU on medicines proves the problems can be resolved.

“There is no credible alternative to the Protocol. More progress can and will be made with common sense, pragmatism and political good faith.”

The 26 County Minister of Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, seeking to dispel suggestions that his government is a “bystander” in the standoff, said he had met “all the parties that are available” in Belfast and that he was there to “rebuild trust”.

He quoted an opinion poll which pointed to less than 7 per cent of people polled considering the Protocol to be the main issue for them in terms of how they vote. “I think we need to put this into perspective,” he said.

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