A unionist election deal could be forming around a plan to pull down Stormont if the Brexit Protocol is not scrapped, or if Sinn Féin becomes the largest party after the next Assembly election.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said last weekend he was seeking to work together with the Ulster Unionist Party and the extremist ‘Traditional Unionist Voice’ (TUV) in order to prevent the unionist vote from being “fragmented”.
“I hope we can work with the UUP and TUV to ensure we maximise the number of Assembly seats unionism secures and return as many as possible pro-Union, anti-Protocol” Assembly members, he said.
Donaldson (pictured, far left) has been in talks with the other unionist leaders around forming a new pan-unionist pact. On so-called ‘Ulster Day’ this week (28 September), four unionist party leaders came together to launch a document to oppose the Protocol.
Donaldson and the leader of the TUV, Jim Allister (pictured, far right), also jointly penned a diatribe this week against the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, which was published in the Dublin-based Irish Times.
Allister is his party’s only Assembly member and can count on the support of only six local councillors. His prominence stems from his regular appearance as a guest on BBC political talks shows and in recent months he has been exerting increasing influence over hardline unionists and loyalists.
This week, he challenged the DUP and Stormont’s other unionist parties to agree not to nominate a deputy First Minister if Sinn Féin become the largest party following the next Assembly election. Senior DUP figures have already said they could not tolerate working under a Sinn Féin First Minister.
The latest opinion poll puts Sinn Féin on course to be the largest party at 25% and if that was borne out in an election, Mr Allister gave a ‘guarantee’ that he would refuse to nominate a Deputy First Minister, with the aim of collapsing the political institutions.
Addressing supporters in North Antrim, he said: “Some who have partnered Sinn Féin in government for years, now raise fears of a Sinn Féin First Minister. Sinn Féin can only be First Minister if they find some stooge unionist party to act as Deputy First Minister.
“So, the challenge to all unionist parties is to declare will they be Sinn Féin’s little helpers, or, like TUV, will they pledge not to nominate a Deputy First Minister, if that situation arose?”
Speaking at the DUP’s 50th anniversary dinner in Belfast on Thursday night, Jeffrey Donaldson appeared ready to sign up to Allister’s terms. He said rival unionist politicians need not be considered enemies.
“I like and respect both Jim Allister and [UUP leader] Doug Beattie,” he said. He praised the TUV for its “strong and consistent line” on the Protocol, and said he was seeking to work together with both the TUV and UUP in order to prevent the unionist vote from splitting.
“I hope we can work with the UUP and TUV to ensure we maximise the number of Assembly seats unionism secures and return as many as possible pro-Union, anti-Protocol MLAs,” he said.
For its part, the Ulster Unionist Party rejected the calls for a unionist pact. Doug Beattie said he would co-operate to try and have the Protocol replaced, but said that “none of this requires pacts and there will be no pacts”.
Senior UUP figure Reg Empey added to his party’s rebuke of the DUP overtures, stating Donaldson’s party had “a lot to answer for” over the Protocol.
“It seems odd that Sir Jeffrey is trying to lead the charge against the Protocol when his party supported key elements that became the Protocol.
“As for a pact, the arrangements that were negotiated in 1998 for designating the First and deputy First Minister were swept aside in 2006 with the acceptance of the DUP and Sinn Féin in favour of designation by largest party. If you add that up with the Protocol, then Sir Jeffrey has a lot to answer for in how we got to this place.”