Talk of unionist 'unity' back on the agenda - but old divisions take minutes to resurface

A selfie of Robbie Butler, UUP MLA, Gavin Robinson, DUP MP, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP, DUP leader, and UUP leader Doug Beattie MLA enjoying coffee.A selfie of Robbie Butler, UUP MLA, Gavin Robinson, DUP MP, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP, DUP leader, and UUP leader Doug Beattie MLA enjoying coffee.
A selfie of Robbie Butler, UUP MLA, Gavin Robinson, DUP MP, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP, DUP leader, and UUP leader Doug Beattie MLA enjoying coffee.
​Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has once again floated the notion of unionists working more closely together – as he attempts to reframe the debate within unionism to one of the future versus the 1970s.

​Speaking to the BBC’s William Crawley on Thursday, the DUP leader said he wanted to work closely with the Ulster Unionist Party – and said he was open to realignment within unionism.

The DUP leader argued that unionism needs to appeal to people beyond its traditional base.

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It comes as divisions within his own party over the Windsor Framework and subsequent deal with the government which will attempt to smooth its implementation.

But immediately after Sir Jeffrey’s interview, the Ulster Unionist Party chairwoman Jill Macauley said unionism would have been better served if Sir Jeffrey hadn’t left her party.

"I certainly would welcome Jeffrey’s comments. Certainly they’re not early enough for me. One can only imagine what a life would have been if Jeffrey had stayed stayed within the Ulster Unionist Party and showed real political courage and leadership alongside David Trimble instead of actually protesting against the Belfast Agreement 25 years ago”.

In his interview on the Talkback programme, Sir Jeffrey said it is undoubtedly the case that there must be a much more unified approach by the two main unionist parties.

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Appearing to hint at electoral pacts, he said recent talks with the UUP were about “building a more cohesive unionism. Whether it’s operating in local government, in the Assembly or indeed in future in Westminster – we can do so in a way in which it’s our common ground that we’re working, rather than seeking to hit off each other because we might have some differences or a different policy emphasis.

"I think the common ground across mainstream unionism is far stronger than anything that divides us, and therefore it makes sense for us to work together in common cause”.

He said he would “ultimately” like to see the parties working closely together, and what shape that takes “can be looked at as we go forward”.

In an attempt to portray the DUP and UUP as the future of unionism, he said working together to win more seats “may lead to a realignment within unionism where perhaps you have some more traditional elements and then a unionism that is forward looking and wants to set out the vision for the union that wins converts… particularly people in the middle ground”.

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He said institutional realignment was a possibility as both parties are on “pretty much the same ground”.

"We need to create a Northern Ireland where everyone, no matter how they identify themselves – what they regard as their background or political affiliations and aspirations – that Northern Ireland is their home… that they want to share”.

"Making Northern Ireland work is absolutely the key to securing the union for the future”.

He said unionists haven’t been good at making the case for the union – arguing unionism “needs to be respectful of others, but strong in our belief that the United Kingdom is inclusive and offers the best way of accommodating our differences and our aspirations”.

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He said: “We are not fighting the battles of the 1970s – this is 2024. Northern Ireland is changing and we need to adapt to that change. That does not mean that we abandon our core principles or beliefs but rather that we shape and fashion those into a vision for NI that people can gather around”.

A TUV spokesman responded to Sir Jeffrey’s comments, saying despite the DUP leader having gone through “not one but two elections proclaiming his opposition to the Protocol and fighting on very different ground from the UUP, the DUP leader now seems intent on teaming up Doug Beattie, who has long advocated Protocol implementation. DUP members and voters will be surprised to learn Sir Jeffrey apparently has more in common with Doug Beattie than Lord Dodds or Sammy Wilson!

“While Sir Jeffrey may have given up on the red, white and blue and persuaded himself and his party to being nothing more than Protocol implementors in a Sinn Fein led executive, there are a large number of Unionists who do not share his defeatist attitude and who still recognise that to implement the Protocol is to dismantle Union.

“Equally, while Sir Jeffrey proclaims the need for Unionists to come together it is an invitation to join him in accepting the border in the Irish Sea and the EU that put it there".

The party said any realignment would “give voters clarity in choosing between the combined Protocol implementers and those of us who refuse to bow the knee to EU and Sinn Fein rule.”

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