Brethren, Sisters and Friends –

Once again, as we prepare to celebrate the Twelfth, life is far from normal. We are thankful that the Covid vaccination programme is well on course and I know that many have had their two jabs. We are making steady progress in the fight against this virus – and we are in a better place than we were a year ago – but we are not quite there yet. 

As an Institution, we took the decision to cancel our normal demonstration – for the second year running – in the interests of the common good. That wasn’t an easy decision but it was the right one.

We will have a slightly more traditional Twelfth in the sense that we will walk the streets of Ballymoney, but there will be no demonstration field and no platform proceedings – those are all being done virtually again this year. 

So, instead of delivering my speech from the platform on the Twelfth, I am once again this year recording it in June. 

The Covid pandemic has had such a severe impact on so many aspects of life over the past year and a half. In some ways, life might never be quite the same again. 

Today, we think today of the families and friends of those who have lost their lives to the virus. We think too of those who have been physically and mentally scarred by it – and those who might carry its effects in their bodies for the rest of their lives. 

And then we must not forget all who need treatment for serious non-Covid related illnesses and who are in despair at the ever-growing waiting lists.

I want to pay tribute to all the staff in the NHS who have been under such severe pressure but who have done such a marvellous job in well-nigh impossible circumstances. I also pay tribute to Health Minister, Robin Swann, who is doing his best to steer us through the crisis. 

This year, of course, marks the Centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland. Due to the pandemic, celebrations have been more muted than we would have liked, but a number of events are taking place, including within our own Institution. I don’t often praise the BBC but – credit where credit is due – they have produced some good stuff on the centenary.

As we look back, we give thanks to God for His hand upon Northern Ireland over the past one hundred years. During those years, our enemies have constantly sought to undermine or destroy the existence of our Province. It is a sad reality that nationalists were not prepared to give the new state a chance back in 1921 – which made it very difficult for our founding fathers to make the progress they wanted to make. 

At the time, many thought the new state would not survive, but, one hundred years on, we are still here – and despite many pressures and challenges, I think we are in reasonable shape. 

The IRA did their best to bomb us out of the UK and into a united Ireland. Their blood-thirsty campaign of terror led many to an early grave and caused untold heartache and pain. But – and this is important – they did not succeed in  their aim. All Sinn Fein’s prophesies of a united Ireland have come to nothing. I see the latest one is from Gerry Adams who says that if he lives to 90 he will see a united Ireland. Dream on Gerry.  

We can look back over the past one hundred years with a lot of pride. We think of Northern Ireland’s contributions in fields such as industry and manufacturing, sports and the arts, and it’s clear that we have regularly punched well above our weight on the world stage. 

Yes, society has changed beyond recognition in the last century and we must all accept that change and adapt to it, but Northern Ireland continues to thrive as part of the United Kingdom –  and I am confident that it will be a thriving and prosperous part of the United Kingdom for many years to come. 

But, brethren and sisters, I am fully aware that there are challenges and hurdles. 

The EU Protocol is not only a disgrace – it is a total disaster. It was foisted upon us by one of the most untrustworthy men ever to occupy No10. I have so little confidence in Boris Johnson that if he said “good morning” to me, I’d sit down to my dinner. 

We have been betrayed on many occasions by British Governments, but this current betrayal is one of the worst we have ever experienced. 

In order to avoid a land border between us and the Irish Republic, we have been presented with a sea border between us and our key trading partner – Great Britain.  We have been cut off economically from the rest of the UK and we are subject to EU customs and trading arrangements over which we now have absolutely no control. Businesses and consumers across the community are suffering. 

But worse than that – we are now cut adrift constitutionally from the UK. That’s the real betrayal. Not much wonder that nationalists and republicans are cock-a-hoop at the Protocol for, in their eyes, it delivers a hammer blow to the Union. And there is no doubt that it fundamentally weakens our place within the United Kingdom and leaves us semi-detached. That is why it has to go.

Joe Biden, whose knowledge of Northern Ireland is probably less than that of a nursery school child, says that the Protocol is necessary to protect the Belfast Agreement. Such utter nonsense. The Protocol conflicts with the Belfast Agreement. It runs a coach and horses through the much-vaunted principle of consent  – something we are repeatedly told is at the heart of the peace process and the Agreement.  

The unionist people do not give their consent to the EU Protocol. There is palpable and growing anger right across the Protestant, unionist and loyalist community. It is vital that our political leaders grasp this nettle firmly and take whatever action they can to get rid of the Protocol. 

And that brings me to the issue of unionist unity.

One hundred years ago, the watchword of our forefathers was “United we stand, Divided we fall”.  This has also been the watchword at various times of crisis in more recent years – I think of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 when we were betrayed by another Conservative Prime Minister and we stood together as one. It’s more crucial than ever that Unionism unites in the face of the imposition of this diabolical Protocol – and I have written to the leaders of the three unionist parties to stress that point. 

We fully appreciate that the various unionist parties have their own distinct policies on a range of matters, and that is absolutely fine. However, the unionist people are crying out for unity on the key issue of the day. 

Failure on their part to act will mean that the gap will be filled by shadowy figures who have no mandate and no sense of moral responsibility. Indeed, there are clear signs that this is already happening. 

Our elected leaders must rise to the challenge and devise a joint strategy and campaign to defeat this betrayal.  

Another issue which continues to raise its head is the Irish language. I have no problem with people speaking Irish but any package of cultural measures must be fair to both traditions and cultures. And we need to remember that there is not a bottomless pit of money to fund this sort of thing – especially at a time of financial and economic hardship.  

But Sinn Fein continue to politicise the Irish language issue. We have been through a dreadful pandemic. The health service and the economy are under intense strain, but as soon as the DUP changed their leader, Sinn Fein grabbed the opportunity to demand action on Irish. And, true to form, Boris Johnson was all too willing to appease them.

Political events can move quickly. It was Joseph Chamberlain who said at the time of the first Home Rule crisis in 1886 that “there is no use in looking beyond the next fortnight”. Here in Ulster this last while, we have hardly been able to look beyond the next couple of days.  

We need political stability and we need strong leadership – and we must hope and pray that we get both in the coming weeks and months.  

This year has also seen the passing of His Royal Highness, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. His death in April at the grand old age of 99 marked the end of an era. He had been at the Queen’s side for well over 70 years and we remember with fondness his many visits to Northern Ireland. Her Majesty will feel his loss most keenly and we assure Her and the other members of the Royal Family of our prayers.

Death is, of course, a reminder that life is at best a fragile thing. As an Institution, we rejoice in the Biblical message of eternal life through faith alone in Christ alone. And in this centenary year, I want to close by referring to Ulster’s great founding father, Edward Carson. 

As his life was drawing to a close in October 1935, Carson told Rev Charles D’Arcy, later Archbishop of Armagh, that the faith in which he lived and hoped to die was the one he learned at his mother’s knee -‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ (John 3:16). 

As he finished these words, he looked at his old friend and asked, “Is it enough?” to which the great churchman and scholar replied, ‘It is enough’. 

May Carson’s Saviour be yours today.