‘No surrender’ in the air as unionist leaders thunder their loathing for NI protocol

Ballymoney rally told protocol opens up door to a united Ireland and therefore must go

Three Lambeg drummers kicked off the Ballymoney anti-protocol unionist rally and parade. A couple of hours later, eight loyalist bands led hundreds of Orangemen through the north Antrim town on Friday night to wrap up events – the bowler hats, banners and collarettes a spring foretaste of the marching season to come.

In between, a crowded town centre listened as the main speakers – Jeffrey Donaldson, Jim Allister, Kate Hoey, Ben Habib and Jamie Bryson – thundered their loathing of the protocol that was creating a border down the Irish Sea and bad blood between Brexiteers and Remainers and unionists and nationalists.

It was a loud night: loud drummers, loud bands and loud speakers.

"Either we kill the protocol or it will kill the union," declared the Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister, here in his home patch of north Antrim.


This was the fourth such rally. The previous three were in Markethill, Portadown and Crossgar in Co Down; three more are to come before the Assembly elections in May, in Lurgan, Co Armagh, Castlederg, Co Tyrone and in Derry.

At the rally in Markethill in Co Armagh last month, DUP MP Sammy Wilson was booed and heckled by a section of the crowd when he spoke. People wondered might the same happen to DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson on this dry, sharp Friday night in Ballymoney.

It was an old-style rambunctious gathering that you don't often experience in Ireland any more, with speeches delivered off a 40-foot trailer attached to a gleaming articulated cab.

The Lambeg drums set the tone and also the theme. Emblazoned on the drums were references to the Ulster Volunteer Force gun-running of 1914, opposition to Home Rule, and "Ulster will fight" and "We will not have Home Rule".

The old refrain of "No surrender" resonated through the night. Carson was referenced by some of the speakers, as were the Apprentice Boys who locked the gates to keep the "Catholic King James" out of Derry in 1688. Some in the crowd carried placards: "EU out of Ulster", "Boycott Irish/EU goods" and "British citizens demand Brexit for all".

There are different views on the protocol, which undoubtedly has created an unwelcome tangle of red tape on trade coming into the North from Britain. Yet many business people, quite a number from the unionist tradition, see merit in how, under the protocol, Northern Ireland uniquely has unfettered access to two of the biggest markets in the world, the EU and Britain. But chances to exploit these opportunities are hamstrung by the political battles over the protocol.

UK-EU talks continue to try to resolve or temper the effects of the protocol but understandably, as far as Britain is concerned, the protocol has slipped way down the news agenda due to the war in Ukraine.

But not here in Ballymoney, those dreary spires haven’t gone away you know. The talk was uncompromising: there could be no moderation of the protocol, that wouldn’t do – it was opening up the door to a united Ireland and therefore must go.

County grand secretary of the Orange Order John McGregor introduced the speakers, and first up was Jamie Bryson, the controversial loyalist activist and editor of the unionist newsletter, the Unionist Voice, who first came to prominence through his involvement in the loyalist flag protests of 2012/2013.

Bryson, starting off at a high decibel level and continuing to pump up the volume through the 15 minutes of his speech, told the crowd that, because of the protocol, "we are second class citizens in our own country" and "under the jackboot of the Irish Government and European Union". The Dublin "jackboot" got a number of mentions.

It was time to end the principle of the peace process “where unionism must give and nationalism must get”, he declared. The onlookers voiced their assent.

Earlier in the day, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney had to be shepherded away from a reconciliation event in north Belfast due to a hoax-bomb security alert believed to be the work of the Ulster Volunteer Force.

Neither Bryson nor any of the speakers made reference to the incident, but Bryson branded Coveney a “meddling aggressor” and mentioned how “the Irish Government come to Northern Ireland and swan around as if they own the place”. He said it was “perfectly legitimate that unionists and loyalists exercise their basic right of peaceful protest – and I emphasise peaceful protest”.

He had a message for the Irish Government: “You will never take Ulster. We will never be your subjects, we will never exist meekly in a united Ireland, economic or otherwise, and most of all we will not tolerate the imposition of a protocol, or the continuation of a process which is designed to dismantle and destroy the union that our forefathers fought and died to defend.”

Next up was Baroness Kate Hoey, a former British Labour MP for Vauxhall in London and a flinty pro-union, anti-nationalist native of Northern Ireland. She lowered the volume a little, but pointedly noted that the Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie was absent from the trailer, hoping that he might yet join this unionist front. "I keep thinking that sometimes when I'm at one of these rallies, that at the last minute somebody called Doug Beattie might rush up and be on the platform," she said, prompting some jeering of the UUP leader.

Beattie has attempted to locate the UUP at a liberal distance from the DUP and Traditional Unionist Voice party, and while he is anti-protocol, he has been rather standoffish to this form of demonstration. It will be interesting to see if he can maintain that distance up to polling day on May 5th.

The former British Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib also opted for the fear factor united Ireland soundbite, reheating another of Jamie Bryson’s utterances by stating that “the Republic of Ireland has its covetous eyes on Northern Ireland” and that “Northern Ireland’s union with Great Britain is facing an existential threat”.

TUV leader Jim Allister said of the protocol, "It was designed and intended to break up the United Kingdom, it was intended to forge a wedge between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and it is intended to create an all-Ireland state".

The plan was to “build an all-Ireland economically as a stepping stone to an all-Ireland politically” by making it “difficult to trade with GB” and “forcing business to look southward rather than to London and Britain”.

“The protocol goes or the union goes, it is as simple as that,” he repeated.

The last speaker was Jeffrey Donaldson, who had just become a grandfather, we were told by chairman John McGregor. Donaldson said he had brought his Orange collarette with him so he could join the parade.

Unlike Sammy Wilson in Markethill, he was accorded a generally positive reception. But there was one heckler who interrupted him a few times, his words difficult to understand. It became a battle of wills between the pair, and about three minutes into his speech the DUP leader felt he must grapple with his opponent.

Donaldson roared: “I am very clear, we must stand united because the media are here tonight to see disunity and let us show them together we stand united against this protocol. Let the message that goes out from Ballymoney be one of opposition to the protocol, and not one of disunity, which is what our enemies want.”

It did the trick, quietening the heckler and earning strong applause and cries of “Fair play to you, Jeffrey” and “Good man, Jeffrey” and perhaps sending a message that despite TUV opposition, the DUP still carries weight in north Antrim.

It was a heady, fervent night of “Ulster says No” unionism, utterly distrusting of attempts by the British and Irish governments and the EU to find a solution to the complex problem, and heedless of the counter-claim, “You voted for Brexit, what did you expect!”

What it all will mean for the outcome of the election and whether there is any prospect of Stormont returning, particularly if Sinn Féin is in line for the post of first minister, is hard to fathom at this stage. One rather cynical observer of the night's proceedings was not impressed with the speechifying, the turnout or the rhetoric: "What else would you be doing in Ballymoney on a Friday night?" he asked.

But equally, anger and resentment over the protocol was palpable among many in the crowd, and not to be too easily dismissed. Whether that is the general unionist view will be tested on voting day.

The night ended with bandsmen and women from places such as Garvagh, the Giant's Causeway, Moneydig and Ballymoney leading Orangemen in a parade through the town – the loyal sons and daughters of Ulster marching to where we're just not quite sure.