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Robinson's views on future border poll are spot on, insists DUP chief Foster

By Suzanne Breen and David Young

DUP leader Arlene Foster last night threw her weight behind Peter Robinson's border poll comments and strongly denied they were an attack on her leadership.

Her intervention came as a spat erupted between Mr Robinson and Sammy Wilson, the party's East Antrim MP, over comments the former leader made in yesterday's Belfast Telegraph.

Mr Robinson had accused unionists who caution against talking about a border poll of engaging in "claptrap" and "crass folly", but Mr Wilson hit back, saying he was "plain wrong".

The Belfast Telegraph understands that Mr Wilson was speaking for himself, and not the party, in his robust criticism of Mr Robinson.

A DUP spokesman said: "Arlene Foster does not view Peter Robinson's Belfast Telegraph article as an attack on the DUP leadership. Indeed, Peter Robinson has praised the party leader in the article.

"This article highlights and exposes the rank hypocrisy of the Ulster Unionist Party on the matter of a border poll."

That appears to be a reference to the provision for a border poll in the Good Friday Agreement, which the UUP negotiated in 1998.

The DUP spokesman added: "Peter is a private citizen and is at liberty to express his views. We consider it important that those with experience feel able to contribute to the important debates of the day."

Mr Robinson had "worked with the party before placing the article in the Belfast Telegraph", the DUP revealed.

Its spokesman added: "Mrs Foster and a number of others had advance sight of the final draft.

"It is important that focus on a border poll does not detract from the need for delivery on the here and now matters such as our schools, roads and hospitals." Writing in the Belfast Telegraph yesterday, Mr Robinson responded to those who criticised his comments at the MacGill Summer School in Co Donegal last Friday, where had said unionism should develop a contingency plan to deal with the possibility of a united Ireland.

Mr Wilson had accused him of giving encouragement to the republican cause by even countenancing the possibility of a vote.

But Mr Robinson used his article in this newspaper to respond in robust terms.

While not mentioning Mr Wilson by name, he said unionists who said the issue should not be discussed were talking "claptrap" and were guilty of "crass folly". "These people have not just buried their heads in the sand, only the soles of their feet are visible above the surface," he said.

Mr Robinson insisted the "battle for the union" was on, whether fellow unionists liked it or not.

Responding to Mr Robinson's latest comments, Mr Wilson described him as a "formidable advocate" for the union, but said on the issue of a poll he was "just plain wrong".

The MP denied he was burying his head in the sand or "digging a defensive foxhole".

"It is not enough to say that a referendum is coming so prepare the terms in case we lose," Mr Wilson said. "Churchill know that the Nazis were coming after Britain when they defeated France in 1940 but he didn't prepare terms for the event of a successful invasion he rallied the people by telling them to prepare to fight on the beaches and in the laneways and in the streets and to never surrender.

"That's a far better strategy and that is what I am hearing from unionists who I speak to and who are alarmed at the talk of an inevitable referendum and the possibility of losing it.

"The Peter Robinson who I remember and admired, even in the dark days leading up to the Anglo-Irish agreement when we had a Secretary of State who declared that the Conservative government had no economic strategic or selfish interest in Northern Ireland, led the fight against what seemed impossible odds.

"He was a formidable advocate for the union, still is, but his current analysis of what unionists should be doing is just plain wrong."

Mr Wilson had previously described Mr Robinson's intervention on the border poll issue as "dangerous and demoralising".

Last night Mr Robinson also came under attack from DUP MLA Jim Wells, who said he felt the former leader's intervention was a "huge distraction" for the party at an already complex time.

Mr Wells, who has had the DUP whip withdrawn following his criticism of the party leadership, Mr Robinson's intervention was a distraction in already complex political times, including issues around Brexit.

"What's facing the party leadership at the moment is so complex and so time-consuming that, really, we shouldn't have to worry about what former leading lights in the party have said," the South Down MLA added.

There was also criticism of Mr Robinson from Ulster Unionist leaders past and present.

The current leader, Robin Swann, also referred to the uncertainty around Brexit.

He said: "Instead of setting out plans for a border poll, Peter's time would be better spent extolling the virtues of the Union and encouraging his colleagues to veer away from actions which have brought Parliament, the Assembly and unfortunately unionism into disrepute."

He added: "It would however be interesting to understand and have sight of the DUP's risk register and contingency planning they had for the hard Brexit which some of their MPs have advocated, as I am sure many businesses and organisations would appreciate sight of that."

Lord Empey, meanwhile, questioned whether Mr Robinson was contemplating some kind of political comeback - a suggestion he quickly shot down, saying he had "not the remotest notion of doing so".

Lord Empey remarked that being a former leader could be a "difficult role".

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