The DUP has lost its status as the largest party in the Belfast Assembly as the party continues to disintegrate following the affirmation of Jeffrey Donaldson as the new party leader.
Donaldson’s first official speech as leader was overshadowed by the resignation of north Down colleague Alex Easton. Combined with the expulsion in 2018 of fellow Assembly member Jim Wells, it means the DUP now has 26 elected MLAs at Stormont against Sinn Féin’s 27.
Easton quit the DUP on Thursday, saying in a statement that there was “no respect, discipline or decency” in the party. Another councillor, east Antrim-based James McCorkell, also resigned, saying the DUP had “lost its soul”.
Ironically, in his inaugural speech as leader, Donaldson spoke expansively about uniting a “broad span of unionist opinion... making the DUP a warm home for everyone who supports the union... and not being dogmatic about issues that are not fundamental to the Union”.
He also described the Irish Protocol of Brexit as the “greatest threat to the economic integrity of the United Kingdom in any of our lifetimes”.
He told party members gathered at the Stormont Hotel in east Belfast that the so-called ‘Irish Sea border’ is “not just a threat to the economic integrity of the United Kingdom”, but “a threat to the living standards of the people of Northern Ireland and the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom”.
Asked later if he was prepared to collapse the North’s powersharing institutions if the protocol was not removed, Mr Donaldson replied: “I wouldn’t use those words...the protocol threatens, not me, the protocol threatens the stability of the political institutions.
“It is the problem, and that problem needs to be resolved.”
While it remains unclear if that stance will win back support among the loyalist wing his party, he has also apologised to the LGBT community for hurt caused by homophobic remarks made in the past by senior party figures.
The party has religiously opposed gay marriage and other gay rights in line with its traditional fundamentalist ethos.
On Thursday night, DUP deputy leader Paula Bradley surprised commentators when she admitted that some of the things said by the party over the past 50 years had been “absolutely atrocious”.
Speaking at a Pink News event, Ms Bradley said: “I can certainly say I apologise for what others have said and done in the past, because I do think there have been some very hurtful comments and some language that really should not have been used.”
Donaldson backed her comments, adding people can hold “deeply held views” on social issues in a respectful way.
“Where we have said things that have hurt others then it is right that we say sorry for that,” he said. “Sorry needn’t be the hardest word.”
The leader of Sinn Féin, Mary Lou McDonald, wished Mr Donaldson well in his role as leader of the DUP and said that at the centre of their discussions next week will be the issue of genuine power-sharing.
“If he is up for real partnership with the other parties in the Executive then he will find willing partners in Sinn Féin. As I said last week - we want to see functioning political institutions,” she said.
“But institutions whose success is measured, not in the ability to stay afloat but in the impact they have on citizens’ lives. That means an Executive and an Assembly that guarantee and promotes rights, that deliver strong public services and that develops our economy, drives opportunity and protects workers’ rights.”
She also said her party “will not stand by while the rights of anyone in society are denied. Equality and respect need to be at the cornerstone of all that we do.”
“There also needs to be an acceptance of the reality that the protocol is not going anywhere. It is essential and contains necessary protections for farmers, businesses and manufacturers. Solutions to the outstanding issues can be found but only through good faith engagement and use of the Joint Committee.
“Endangering the stability of any of the political institutions will not lead to solutions and it would be folly of the DUP to go down that road.
“Our focus is on working to deliver good government to provide more jobs, more homes and a better health service and it is my hope that will be the focus of all Executive Ministers.”