MLA insists he has no regrets about quitting, while UUP aims a pointed barb at new leader
An Assembly Member who resigned from the DUP just after Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was ratified as party leader has said he has “no regrets”.
North Down MLA Alex Easton said he had received a “hugely positive” response on the ground in his constituency yesterday to his decision to quit the troubled party.
“It has reinforced my belief that I made the right choice but, moving forward, I wish Sir Jeffrey and the DUP well,” he said.
In his resignation statement Mr Easton, who was a DUP elected representative for 20 years, said he was “at the end of his tether” with the party’s “U-turns and reaction politics”.
He also said he was distressed by recent internal divisions, and had seen no “respect, discipline or decency” in the party. He will now sit as an independent unionist.
Sir Jeffrey said he was "greatly saddened" to hear of Mr Easton's decision. "He's a hard-working MLA who represents his constituency faithfully," he told a DUP gathering in east Belfast.
"I will be reaching out to Alex, I will sit down with him, talk through his concerns and the issues that are important to Alex. My door will be open, and the door of this party will be open, to Alex. I hope that one day Alex will find the path back to this party and I will encourage him to do so."
Sir Jeffrey said he had already spoken to other councillors who had resigned over the past month, and he believed some would return to the DUP. “I want to build a unity in this party," he added.
He paid tribute to the four leaders who had preceded him. Edwin Poots’ tenure may have been short but he had always served the party with “honour and distinction”.
Sir Jeffrey said he did not "seek to fill the shoes of anyone ... I'm my own person", adding that he wanted "to be known as a bridge-builder”.
He said: "I am acutely aware that there is a job of rebuilding relationships and reconnecting with our voters to be done. After some tumultuous months, it is time to restore some order and stability.”
The new DUP leader said he wanted to build the "broadest coalition of support" for the Union. "Unionism should have no barriers to entry beyond a belief that Northern Ireland is best served as a part of the UK," he said.
"While I celebrate the past and our many achievements, my unionism does not hanker on returning back to a bygone age but forward to a new era. It is defined by what we are for, not what we are against.
"Too often unionism has been on the back foot in the constitutional battle with a nationalism that is already planning and preparing for the future. Now we must do likewise. We cannot afford to sleepwalk into a border poll that others have spent many years preparing for.”
Sir Jeffrey said that the DUP must have “its anchor securely in the mainstream of unionism”. While smaller unionist parties can “afford to target elements of the unionist electorate, we cannot afford to marginalise ourselves with policies that apply to the few and not the many”.
He said that it was the NI Protocol, and not the DUP, which put Stormont at risk. "I have, in recent days, held a series of meetings on the p rotocol, including with the Secretary of State and Lord Frost.
"While the Government is undoubtedly now accepting the case that the protocol is unsustainable and unacceptable, there is still some way to go to reach an outcome that we can live with,” he said.
"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."
Asked if he was prepared to pull down devolution if there was no movement on the issue, he said: "I wouldn't use those words."
Sir Jeffrey repeated his intention to return to Stormont and become First Minister. He would come back to the Assembly either at next May’s election or "there may be an opportunity before that — if it arises I will take that opportunity and lead from the front".
He said his first meeting would be with Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie on how they could reach agreement to work together.
But a UUP spokesman said: “Sir Jeffrey asked for a meeting and we said yes.
"Now he is using it as a political prop for a badly split DUP. It's not a good start. It will be hard to build trust if that’s the way he intends to do business. The DUP have changed their piper, but they haven’t changed their tune.”