Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said the DUP can emerge as the largest party from next year’s Assembly elections despite a year marked by poor poll ratings and unprecedented internal wrangling.
Despite what our critics might suggest, we are not done yet,” he told those gathered at the DUP’s 50th anniversary dinner in Belfast on Thursday night.
The DUP leader also said rival unionist politicians need not be his party’s enemies.
He praised Jim Allister’s “strong and consistent line” on the protocol and Doug Beattie’s attempts to expand support for the Union.
He also stressed he would not shy away from difficult decisions in coming months as he pledged to “do everything in my power to remove the Irish Sea border”.
In his speech to the DUP faithful, Sir Jeffrey said: “This party has been written off in the past and our political obituaries have been written many times before. I see some are even at it again.
“Let me assure you, despite what our critics might suggest, we are not done yet. I don’t pretend this has been an easy year for this party, and I do not claim we have always got everything right.
“After a difficult start to this year, I believe we have turned a corner and are once again moving in the right direction. When I speak to our members, I sense that unity of purpose and determination to succeed has been restored.”
The DUP has warned it will collapse the power-sharing Executive if major changes aren’t made to the protocol in early autumn.
Sir Jeffrey said: “I do not know what the next few weeks will hold, but let me be clear if there are difficult decisions to be taken in the time ahead, I will be prepared to take them.
“I am not in the business of quick fixes or plastering over fundamental problems but I want to find long-term solutions that work for all our people.”
With an Assembly election scheduled for next May, and a poll as early as January possible if the institutions collapse, Sir Jeffrey spoke of his desire to co-operate with other unionist parties to maximise the pro-Union, anti-protocol vote.
He said he wasn’t calling on anyone to stand aside in constituencies but rather for the parties to work together on turn-out and to encourage their voters to transfer to each other.
“If the protocol is still in place come the next election, I want to see this united opposition combining to win a majority of votes and seats in the Assembly,” he said.
“I also want to make sure Sinn Fein are deprived of claiming a boost for their campaign to hold a divisive border poll by making sure the DUP is returned as Northern Ireland’s largest party.
“On the evidence of recent election results, unionists winning a majority of Assembly seats is no small challenge. But there remains an enormous reservoir of untapped unionist voters who have sat at home in recent elections.”
Praising the TUV and UUP leaders, Sir Jeffrey said: “I like and respect both Jim Allister and Doug Beattie.
“Jim has taken a strong and consistent line on the protocol, and Doug has sought to expand support for the Union to those who have not voted for unionist parties in recent elections.
“I want to make sure the DUP is in the market for voters who are looking for either or preferably both these attributes at the next Assembly election.”
The DUP leader said his party had not “always got everything right” but Northern Ireland was “a better place today because of our leadership”.
He said the Government appeared to now understand the “economic and constitutional impact” of the protocol and “has repeatedly made it clear the preconditions for triggering Article 16 have already been satisfied”.
The EU also appeared to be moving “though it is not yet clear whether this will be far enough or fast enough”, he added.
Meanwhile, Jim Allister has described the TUV as “the real deal” as he pointed to the “expediency” of others. Addressing the party faithful in North Antrim, he said: “The rising tide of support for TUV comes primarily from our clarity, from the beginning, over the constitutional dangers of the Union-dismantling protocol.
“When others were foolishly talking about its ‘opportunities’, TUV was the vanguard of unionist opposition. Likewise our distinct and unwavering stand against Sinn Fein rule and the Stormont shambles has greatly strengthened TUV’s support. TUV doesn’t have to run to catch up on any of these issues.
“We have set the pace. People can see TUV is the real deal and that principle, not expediency, fuels our politics.” He urged pro-Union voters to give his party their first preferences and then transfer “throughout the wider unionist, anti-protocol family”.
Mr Allister continued: “Some who have partnered Sinn Fein in government for years, now raise fears of a Sinn Fein First Minister.
“Sinn Fein can only be First Minster 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?”