Outgoing DUP leader Edwin Poots has admitted that unionists have been exaggerating their grievances and that Irish language legislation being opposed by his party is balanced and moderate.
Speaking to the BBC, he said unionists often “don’t recognise their own wins and very often overplay other people’s wins”, when asked why his party reacted so sharply against last week’s deal on Irish language legislation.
The upheaval within the North’s largest unionist party appears to have abated after Jeffrey Donaldson (left) was returned unopposed on Tuesday as the new party leader and First Minister-delegate.
After announcing his resignation, Mr Poots (right) said that his party “lacked confidence” that they had secured a good deal on language and culture legislation, which he noted stopped short of an Irish language act and contained balancing measures for Ulster Scots.
But he continued to rail against the Brexit protocol, claiming it had overturned the Act of Union of 1800 under which Ireland was annexed by Britain. He also claimed it had “undermined democracy” in the north of Ireland by handing the EU a role in trade safety standards.
Poots, who is to be formally replaced next week, is also the first DUP leader to admit that Sinn Féin could win an election in the North of Ireland, and that Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill would become First Minister if it was held now.
He noted that unionists had slowly lost their hold on councils across the Six Counties in recent decades, and warned that Sinn Féin ‘probably would have the largest number of votes and seats as things stand’ following the DUP’s turmoil.
Stephen Farry, whose Alliance party is predicted by pollsters to become the largest unionist party following the next election, condemned his unionist rivals as operating a “grievance factory” which was raising tensions in the North.
The North Down MP today said he found it “most frustrating” that a Swiss-style veterinary agreement, which he said could remove 80 per cent of checks on goods coming from Britain and resolve the current crisis, is not being pursued by unionists.
“Unionism, for whatever reason, isn’t interested in that – they seem to be more interested in a grievance factory and scapegoating people, which is extremely disappointing,” Mr Farry told the BBC.
“The fact that if we get to a situation where the five Executive parties had a united front and went to the UK government and said ‘this is what we want’ then we would actually achieve that, but they’re not interested.”
However, the new DUP leader Jefrey Donaldson has said it’s “not realistic” to expect stability in Ireland under the terms of the Brexit deal, in another apparent threat to both the Dublin and London governments. He said he would pass on the warning to the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
“The [British] government and those who claim to be protectors of peace and stability must step up and deal with the Protocol in a manner which respects the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom,” he said.
The future of the power-sharing Stormont Assembly remains uncertain, although moves underway at Westminster to pass legislation to add stability could help to avert a collapse in the near term.
Growing acceptance among unionist hardliners of the inevitability of legislation to protect the rights of Irish language speakers, as voiced by Poots has also lifted some of the political tension over the past week.
Menwhile, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said Sinn Féin stands ready to confirm Jeffrey Donaldson as the new First Minister but has insisted it must be on the basis of “real partnership”.
Speaking in west Belfast, the Sinn Féin leader said her party did not “seek to humiliate or profit from the dysfunction within the DUP” but would “stand firm on basic rights and entitlements”.
Mrs McDonald criticised the fact that it had taken 15 years since it was first negotiated at the St Andrews Agreemenet “for such basic rights [on the Irish language] to be recognised”.
The Sinn Féin leader said she had spoken to Jeffrey Donaldson already and that they would meet next week.
“The question facing him is whether he is up for real partnership, real power-sharing, for political institutions that deliver?” she said.
“If the answer to those questions is ‘Yes’ then he will find a willing partner in the Sinn Féin team under Michelle O’Neill.”
But Ms McDonald said the DUP was also “not in step with broad public opinion” on the protocol, including many unionists.
“The DUP will be making another political error if they seek to endanger the political stability of the institutions over the consequences of the outworking of their Brexit policy,” she said.