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DUP leader Donaldson ‘greatly saddened’ over Alex Easton departure saying task to ‘unify’ party and scrap NI Protocol

New DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he is determined to “unify the party” in a keynote speech coming just hours after the resignation of the North Down MLA Alex Easton.

Mr Donaldson said he was “greatly saddened” over the decision by the MLA – as exclusively revealed by the Belfast Telegraph – adding he planned to sit down with Mr Easton in an attempt to persuade him to return to the party.

The new leader also refused to rule out whether he would pull the Stormont institutions down if the protocol remained, simply adding he “would not use that language”, before urging Boris Johnson to exercise his “duty” to Northern Ireland.

During his speech at Belfast’s Stormont Hotel, Mr Donaldson referenced the “difficulties” the DUP has faced over recent months, with the removal of Arlene Foster and the subsequent turmoil over Edwin Poots’ ill-fated 21 days as leader.

The Lagan Valley MP said the last few months “have not been the proudest in the history of our party” and apologised to both party members and the public.

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“When we should have been focused on the needs of wider society, we have been consumed with the internal politics of the party,” he said on Thursday morning.

“At times, I know we have strained the patience not just of the public but of our own supporters as well. As the new leader of the DUP, I want to apologise to our supporters and to the public for that.

“More importantly I want to draw a line under it and to move on. The challenges that lie ahead are great and we cannot afford to be diverted or distracted from the task before us.”

Now sitting as an independent MLA, Mr Easton said he was quitting after 21 years of DUP membership, adding that he is: “At the end of my tether with U-turns and reaction politics”.

On BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme, the DUP MP Sammy Wilson admitted the party had gone through a “torrid time”.

“The first thing he [Jeffrey Donaldson] has to do is heal the internal divisions within the party. Can he do that completely? I don’t know,” said Mr Wilson.

In his speech, Jeffrey Donaldson said the “door of the party” will be open for Alex Easton to return, adding he expected a number of party representatives to return to the DUP.

“I will sit down with him and talk through his concerns and the issues that are important to Alex,” added Jeffrey Donaldson.

“I have already been reaching out to others in recent weeks who have decided to become independent and I believe you will see some of those people returning to the fold.”

Mr Donaldson’s speech centred on the Northern Ireland Protocol, with the new leader not directly addressing media questions around the future of Stormont if the post-Brexit trading arrangements remain.

“I want stability for Northern Ireland. At the heart of these agreements are relationships. Removing the Irish sea border is not just about trade,” he said.

“I want our institutions, our Assembly and Executive. I’ve got to say truthfully and honestly to the Government and Prime Minister, if they do not resolve this problem, then we have seen the instability it has already caused. Do we think that is just going to disappear?

“The Prime Minister has a duty to address that. He is the PM of the UK that includes Northern Ireland. It is his duty to do what is necessary to protect the political institutions.

“I am saying to the Prime Minister very clearly, that the protocol threatens the stability of the political institutions.

"The Northern Ireland protocol represents the greatest threat to the economic integrity of the United Kingdom in any of our lifetimes.

“The Irish sea border is not just a threat to the economic integrity of the United Kingdom; it is a threat to the living standards of the people of Northern Ireland and the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom.

“In the weeks ahead our goal is to remove the Irish sea border and to preserve and protect the internal UK market.”

Mr Donaldson also confirmed once again that he intends to return to Stormont, adding this would either be through an election next May or “an opportunity before that”.

The new leader is however already facing criticism from the Ulster Unionist Party, after referencing a meeting with UUP leader Doug Beattie during his speech.

A UUP source is reported to have said the meeting between the leaders was intended to be private and reportedly said it was “not a good start” by Mr Donaldson, before adding it was “disingenuous”. 

Mr Donaldson has also faced criticism from the TUV leader Jim Allister, who said it is “hard to point to any substantive difference between Sir Jeffery and either of his two recent predecessors”.

“Significantly, there was no explicit mention of Irish language legislation. There was, however, a reference to New Decade, New Approach remaining the basis for the restoration of Stormont,” Mr Allister added.

“That deal, of course, includes an Irish Language Act in all but name. I am disappointed that Sir Jeffery appears to have given up the fight on the issue.”

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