Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has told DUP members he will not shy away from difficult decisions in the coming months as he warned that the UK’s economic and constitutional integrity lie in the balance.
The DUP leader has already signalled his party will collapse the Stormont Executive, a move that would place an onus on the Government to trigger a snap Assembly poll, if major changes to Brexit’s contentious Irish Sea border are not secured in the coming weeks.
Addressing a dinner to mark the 50th anniversary of the DUP’s foundation, Sir Jeffrey also insisted it could still emerge as the largest party at the next Assembly election, despite a year of unprecedented internal turbulence and poor poll showings.
“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,” he said.
“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.
“As a party that has been around for half a century, we must judge our decisions with the perspective of years and not simply weeks or months.”
If there is no snap election in the interim, the next scheduled Assembly poll is due in May next year.
Opinion polls suggest the DUP could be facing a bruising election.
The latest saw the region’s largest party trail in in joint fourth place, with public support rated at just 13%.
In the last Assembly election in 2017 the DUP was backed by 28% of the electorate.
The party is now facing the uncomfortable prospect of Sinn Fein emerging from the next Assembly poll as the largest party.
The republican party taking the First Minister’s role in Northern Ireland would represent a sizeable symbolic blow for the DUP and unionism in general.
The fall out from Brexit has seen some grassroots unionists blame the DUP for mishandling a process that resulted in the imposition of the new economic barriers between NI and GB.
That has undoubtedly been a factor in the chaos that engulfed the party earlier this year when two leaders, Arlene Foster and her successor Edwin Poots, were both ousted in internal revolts that occurred within weeks of each other.
Sir Jeffrey, who succeeded Mr Poots in the summer, told the gathering that the party had turned a corner and was “moving forward again”.
“Let me assure you, despite what our critics might suggest, we are not done yet,” he said.
“I don’t pretend that this has been an easy year for this party, and I do not claim that we have always got everything right, but Northern Ireland is a better place today because of our leadership over these last twenty years.
“After a difficult start to this year, I believe that 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.”
Sir Jeffrey again spoke of his desire to cooperate with other unionist parties at the next election to maximise the pro-Union vote.
He made clear he was not favouring parties standings aside in constituencies, rather them cooperating to encourage voters to transfer to other unionist candidates in the single transferable vote election.
“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.
“And yes, I do also want to make sure that 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, though notably turned out in the Brexit and Belfast Agreement referendums.”
The DUP leader told members there were two great challenges ahead, to remove the Irish Sea border and to lay the foundations for Northern Ireland’s success in the future.
Sir Jeffrey said the party’s pathway from protest to power was “not always smooth nor easy”.
“I have little doubt that the next few months will be challenging and difficult,” he added.
“Decisions will have to be taken, though we have never shied away from a challenge in the past and we will not do so now.
“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.
“We have taken knocks along the way.
“But we have always emerged stronger, because we held our nerve when others panicked, because we adapted to changing circumstances and because we remained united despite being assailed on all sides.
“There is no doubt that we are being tested once again.
“But this time it is not simply the fate of the DUP that lies in the balance, but the economic and constitutional integrity of the Union itself.”