The Democratic Unionist Party leader has faced questions over the last 24 hours about the agenda of his meeting with the UUP last year following his initial defeat in the DUP leadership contest.
Just before the Nolan Show was broadcast on Wednesday night Sir Jeffrey rejected via Twitter claims that he made overtures to defect to the UUP.
He tweeted that these allegations were “nonsense” and that the real purpose of the discussions were to focus on the need for greater cooperation within unionism.
On Thursday evening the DUP released a video, which will circulate this evening across social media platforms in which the Lagan Valley MP did not tackle head on reports that he was allegedly going to go back to the UUP.
Instead Sir Jeffrey emphasised the need for unionists to come together in opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
However, in other similar video footage, the DUP leader said: “I had no intentions or plans to rejoin the UUP. I was approached, it was made clear I would be welcomed in the UUP and I politely declined their invitation.”
In the video sent to the News Letter, the DUP leader does not make that point and refers to the anti-protocol rally in Portadown on Wednesday night which he describes as a “very successful event”.
He points out that it was attended by his party colleague and fellow MP Carla Lockhart “that discussed continuing unionist opposition to the Protocol.”
Sir Jeffrey says that tonight (Thursday) he will be in Kilkeel meeting groups from across the unionist community to discuss “the challenges and opportunities facing us.”
He continues: “Throughout my political life I have always worked to achieve greater unionist cooperation. At a time of the existential threat to the union we will only make progress if we move forward together. That has been the clear message of unionists right across Northern Ireland. That is what I want to achieve.”
In what appears to be a veiled reference to the discussion with the UUP last year during the DUP leadership battles, Sir Jeffrey says: “Meeting with fellow unionists inside and outside the DUP is something I always welcome. That’s why I will be in Kilkeel tonight taking part in a community discussion event. I will be listening to other unionists and putting forward the DUP’s vision for Northern Ireland within the Union.
“It was what Carla Lockhart was doing last night in Portadown and what we’ll continue to do because we will always achieve more for the Union working together rather than pulling apart.”
Senior DUP sources said the row over the allegations on the Nolan Show were unlikely to prompt any challenges to Sir Jeffrey’s leadership. However, they accepted that it portrayed a party that was still prone to divisions, which would be electorally damaging.
They added that there was considerable anger against those within the party who were behind the latest allegations of an alleged aborted defection by Sir Jeffrey back to the Ulster Unionists.
His discussions with the UUP - the party he defected from in 2004 - took place shortly after he lost the ever DUP leadership contest to Edwin Poots in May last year. That followed an internal party coup which ousted Arlene Foster as DUP leader and First Minister. After she lost her position as leader Mrs Foster made it clear she would be walking away from the DUP.
Following his initial defeat at the hands of Edwin Poots, Sir Jeffrey received an offer from Doug Beattie to discuss shifting back to the UUP.
The UUP leader publicly said shortly after the DUP vote last May at the Crown Plaza hotel in South Belfast:
“I really like Jeffrey, I think he has got an awful lot to offer. If Jeffrey were to come to me - and we are friends, and he knows he can have a conversation with me anytime, and we do regularly - but if Jeffrey comes to me we can talk about things.”
The Lagan Valley MP declined the offer to rejoin the UUP however and a month later went on to take over the DUP unopposed after Edwin Poots was himself ousted in the second internal party coup in quick succession.
Sir Jeffrey’s leadership was endorsed by 32 of the 38 votes of the DUP’s electoral college making him the fifth leader in the party’s 50-year plus history.
*The extent to which unionist in-fighting has abated will be tested at a major anti-Protocol rally in Lurgan in April. Organisers of the march in the North Armagh town on 8 April have invited the leaders of all three major unionist parties including Jeffrey Donaldson and Doug Beattie to speak at the rally called by the Loyal Orders.
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