Democratic Unionist Party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has sought to face down his critics as hopes grow that a deal between the DUP and the UK government to see power sharing restored in Northern Ireland is imminent.
In an impassioned and lengthy House of Commons speech on Wednesday, Donaldson said hardline unionists who have attacked his approach to talks with the UK government in recent months have done “nothing” to help restore Northern Ireland’s place in the Union, unlike the DUP. He stressed that his talks with officials in London over an agreement were ongoing.
Donaldson told MPs there was an “undoubtedly an attempt to orchestrate an opposition” to a future deal with the UK government by people who would ultimately prefer to be ruled from London.
Donaldson was speaking after Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton Harris confirmed on Tuesday that the deadline for holding fresh Assembly elections in the region would be extended by just over two weeks to give the DUP more time to agree a return to power sharing.
The deadline is now February 8 — a short extension which suggests confidence in Westminster that a deal is close after many months of talks and false dawns.
The DUP, the second largest party in Northern Ireland behind nationalists Sinn Fein, collapsed the region’s power-sharing government nearly two years ago in protest against post-Brexit arrangements for trade with Great Britain across the Irish Sea. According to the DUP, these arrangements had fundamentally undermined Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.
In February, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the European Union agreed a new deal for the region called the Windsor Framework, replacing the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol, a treaty negotiated by former prime minister Boris Johnson. The DUP said the Windsor Framework was an improvement but did not go far enough to address its concerns, and since then Donaldson has been in talks with the government about resolving these remaining issues.
On Friday, there were suggestions that the DUP was on the brink of approving a return to power sharing when a party insider told outlets including PoliticsHome that Donaldson had called a meeting of senior officers to decide whether to accept or reject the UK government’s offer.
That meeting on Friday did not produce an agreement, and in the days since then Donaldson has sought to to reject claims that it was a “make or break” moment for his party.
Despite Donaldson’s attempts to play down the significance of that meeting, hopes are growing that the DUP and Westminster are close to agreeing a deal that would see the restoration of Northern Ireland’s institutions after Donaldson’s party walked out in early 2022.
In his speech today, a furious Donaldson accused hardline critics in the unionist movement like the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), led by Jim Allister, of having done “nothing” to secure changes to post-Brexit arrangements for the region despite their vocal protests.
“My party can stand over its record of the change we have delivered and will deliver. And I say to those who point the figure at us, what have you delivered?”
He continued: “They [TUV] put up posters in the dark of the night before any deal has been done, talking about a sell out. What have they sold? What have they delivered for the people of Northern Ireland?
“What has been their contribution to securing the change that we need to restore our place in the UK and its internal market?”.
The TUV and other hardline figures in Northern Ireland’s unionist movement have constantly accused Donaldson of preparing to do a deal with the UK government that would fail to resolve issues created by the Brexit deal and properly restore the region’s place in the United Kingdom.
Donaldson today stressed that work was ongoing to finally reach a deal with Sunak’s government, and went on to say that a “tiny minority” of unionists in Northern Ireland do not want to see power sharing restored whatever the outcome of the DUP’s engagement with the UK government because they prefer a system of direct rule from Westminster.
The DUP leader in his House of Commons speech revealed he had recently been threatened by someone over his talks with the UK government, but stressed that he would not be “deflected” from his job.
“I was threatened by those who never put on a uniform, by those who haven’t served our country and when I checked out one of the people who threatened me, they weren’t even on the register.
“They didn’t vote at the last election. They can’t even come out to vote for our future in the union. Yet they’re threatening people like me who are working day and night to find solutions,” he told Parliament.
Members of Parliament who are pushing for Stormont’s return said they were encouraged by Donaldson’s speech.
Julian Smith, the former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, said on X, the social media website formerly known as Twitter, that DUP leader Donaldson “projected a powerful future for unionism and described his House of Commons speech as having a “devastating impact”.
Colum Eastwood, leader of the Social Democratic Labour Party, told MPs: “We are in a more hopeful place than we have been. If this today symbolises we are getting closer to a resolution we have to welcome it and give it space.”
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