By Cate McCurry and David Young, PA
A senior DUP MP was loudly booed and jeered as he addressed a loyalist rally against the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Sammy Wilson was repeatedly interrupted as he attempted to deliver a speech at the event at Markethill in Co Armagh.
During his address, Mr Wilson compared the EU’s handling of Northern Ireland in the Brexit process to Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in Ukraine.
However, his comments were often drowned out as angry crowd members accused his party of botching the Brexit process.
Despite the blizzard conditions, thousands of people attended the rally, with dozens of bands taking part.
TUV leader Jim Allister had to intervene during DUP MP Sammy Wilson’s speech at an anti-protocol rally after the crowd booed and jeered him. Jim Allister urged the crowd to listen to him but said to make their anger known on Election Day. pic.twitter.com/6RjK5y2Qg2
— Cate McCurry (@CateMcCurry) February 18, 2022
At one point in Mr Wilson’s speech, Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister intervened and appealed to those in attendance to hear him out.
Mr Allister urged the crowd to listen to the speakers.
He added: “I do appeal to you to listen to the speeches. You’ll get your opportunity at the polls to express yourself, but tonight it’s important that we listen to all unionist voices.
“The people that are here are the people who are opposed to protocol.
“Let’s respect that and let’s hear what Sammy and others have to say.”
Mr Wilson thanked Mr Allister and told the crowd: “We are on the same side.
“Jim and I have fought together against the protocol We have fought against the imposition of the protocol.
“We did not implement the protocol, the British Government brought the protocol in and implemented it.”
The event came on a day when Mr Allister raised concerns that the DUP was softening its line on the protocol and was willing to accept arrangements that still treated Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK.
Mr Wilson stressed the need for unionists to work together to oppose the protocol.
He accused Brussels of annexing the region through the Irish Sea trading arrangements required under the Northern Ireland Protocol.
He said UK prime minister Boris Johnson should oppose the EU’s stance on the North as much he is opposing the Russian president’s tactics in Ukraine.
Russia annexed Crimea in southern Ukraine in 2014 and has amassed tens of thousands of troops on the Ukraine border in recent weeks amid international concerns that Mr Putin is poised to launch a full-scale military invasion.
“The Irish Sea border imposes the will of nationalists on unionists,” Mr Wilson said.
“It trashes the principle of cross-community consent, undermines the Acts of Union and breaches the constitutional settlement in Northern Ireland.
“Through the Northern Ireland Protocol, the EU in effect is annexing Northern Ireland just as much as President Putin has already annexed part of Ukraine and is seeking to undermine that country’s independence further.”
The protocol has created new economic barriers on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Agreed by the UK and EU to ensure no hardening of the Irish land border post-Brexit, it has instead moved regulatory and customs checks to the Irish Sea, with the North remaining in the EU single market for goods. The North also applies the EU customs code at its ports.
Unionists and loyalists claim the arrangements have undermined the sovereignty of the UK, but a majority of Assembly members at Stormont support the protocol, claiming it offers the North a degree of protection from negative economic consequences of Brexit.
The EU and UK continue to negotiate in a bid to agree a way to reduce the bureaucracy associated with the protocol.
There has been increased focus on whether any deal would retain the element of the protocol that allows Northern Ireland traders to sell freely within the UK internal market and the EU single market – the so-called “best of both worlds” dual market access.
Mr Wilson said: “Boris Johnson has rightly led the campaign to stop Putin undermining the democratic wishes of the people of Ukraine, and he has an even greater responsibility as the PM of the UK to prevent the annexation of Northern Ireland by Brussels by revoking the NI Protocol.
“Make no doubt about it, whilst the protocol damages the economy of Northern Ireland, even more fundamentally it divides us from the country to which we belong, it undermines democracy and imposes foreign rules in this part of the UK.”
Mr Allister also addressed the rally, saying the protocol issue cannot be “fudged”.
“Foreign sovereignty over any part of the UK is incompatible with being an integral part of that kingdom,” he said.
“Thus, any ‘landing ground’ that leaves us annexed into the EU’s single market is not ‘the best of both worlds’, but keeps us firmly in the EU’s world, with Great Britain designated as a ‘third country’, while we are subjected to European Union laws and jurisdiction. Such is a non-starter.
“Any woolly thinking that you can be part of the EU single market and subject to its customs code while at the same time not be subject to its sovereignty is a dangerous delusion.
“Thus, any acceptable way forward requires the EU to give up its ill-gotten sovereignty over Northern Ireland.
“There can be no compromise on this constitutional imperative. This is not a matter to fudge or equivocate over and those who do forfeit the right to expect transfers from anti-protocol unionists (in the Assembly election).”