A bid to revive power-sharing in the North of Ireland hangs in the balance following attempts by loyalists and their supporters in the media to sabotage a potential deal between the British government and the DUP.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson dramatically told a near-empty House of Commons chamber on Wednesday that he was being undermined by those who said they would “rather have imperfect Direct Rule than an imperfect Stormont” yet who condemned Westminster “constantly”.
Before Christmas, Donaldson was said to be close to a deal after securing changes to the Irish Protocol on Brexit, only to be unnerved by an overnight postering campaign warning of a “DUP sellout” by the extremist Traditional Unionist Voice, led by Jim Allister.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Donaldson railed against those, reportedly both inside and outside his party, who are seeking to subvert the talks.
“My party can stand over its record of the change we have delivered and will deliver. And I say to those who point the finger at us, what have you delivered?” he said.
“What has the Traditional Unionist Voice party delivered by way of change to the Protocol? Absolutely nothing. Not a single thing. Nothing.
“And yet they put up posters in the dark of the night before any deal has been done, talking about a sell out. Well, what have they sold? What have they delivered?”
He spoke out after a new attempt to wreck a potential deal, this time via the BBC and other media organisations.
In the wake of intense public pressure in the form of the North’s largest ever general strike, a key meeting of the DUP leadership was due to took place on Friday. However, it was disrupted by reports that it was set to finally agree an end to their two-year boycott, and was blamed for again spooking Donaldson into retreating from a deal.
Referring to the supposed “leaks” to unionist BBC broadcaster Stephen Nolan, Donaldson said there had been “stirring up” and “an attempt to orchestrate opposition” to an agreement that had not yet been completed.
He said he was “proud of the service” that he had given in the British Army’s Ulster Defence Regiment, “yet today, because of the stirring up that is going on, I was threatened.
“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 on the register, didn’t vote at the last election.
“Can’t even come out to vote for our future in the Union, never do anything about it. And yet they’re threatening people like me who are working day and night to try and find solutions and to move Northern Ireland forward on a basis that the vast majority of people can’t support.”
Donaldson was speaking on emergency legislation brought by the British government to extend the period of time before a Stormont election must be called to February 8. He suggested talks are moving towards “finalising those outstanding issues” which would see his party return to power-sharing.
“As a result of the actions my party has taken, the EU were brought back to the table, there were negotiations, changes have occurred, and further change will come as a result of our actions,” he said.
“I hope that the Secretary of State, in advance of reaching an agreement, whenever that might be, on the outstanding issues - which I believe we are moving towards finalising those outstanding issues - then I would hope the Secretary of State for 2023/24 will transfer the funding that the Treasury have committed to and enable our public sector workers to have the pay rise that they deserve.”
He added: “To my fellow unionists in Northern Ireland, whatever their political persuasion or background, the notion that a unionism that turns in on itself is a unionism that can deliver for Northern Ireland... to secure the union for the future, is not the way to go.”
Mr Heaton-Harris said it was a “disgrace” that Donaldson had been threatened for “doing the job he should be doing”. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood also offered his support, saying those sending threats to the DUP leader “couldn’t lace his boots”.
Meanwhile, the BBC has withdrawn claims it made on last Friday’s episode of Stephen Nolan’s radio show in which an unnamed DUP source was quoted saying the party’s officer board was gathering later that day for a “deal or no deal” meeting.
A DUP official reportedly accused Nolan’s source of “seeking to destabilise things”.
The SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole said there were “questions for a public service broadcaster about the extraordinary editorial leeway given to one particular outlet and the opaque way in which particular agendas are pushed”.