A general election in June would be a “golden opportunity” for unionism to “bounce back” following the recent Assembly election, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said.
The prime minister called the election on Tuesday morning, claiming that divisions at Westminster risked hampering the Brexit negotiations.
Mrs May will require the support of two-thirds of MPs to go to the country, with a vote scheduled in the Commons on Wednesday (April 19).
Lagan Valley MP Mr Donaldson said he welcomed confirmation from new Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann that the UUP was “open” to talks on electoral cooperation to maximise unionist representation.
Earlier, Mr Swann told the News Letter that he was “prepared to talk to anyone in the interests of unionism.”
Mr Donaldson responded by saying: “We welcome that news and we will be arranging to talk to the UUP as soon as we know what the timetable for the general election will be.
“I think that the vast majority of unionists would expect the two main unionist parties to cooperate to maximise the return of unionist MPs to Westminster.
“It is in the best interests of the Union, and indeed securing the best deal for Northern Ireland under Brexit, that we have a strong unionist team arguing the case at Westminster.
“I believe that the DUP is best placed to be that voice for Northern Ireland, and clearly we also want to ensure that the maximum numbers of unionists return and that means the need for unionist cooperation is greater than ever.
“There are a number of seats were a single unionist candidate would stand a much better chance of winning the seat, and that includes Fermanagh/South Tyrone and South Belfast.”
His party leader Arlene Foster also welcomed Mrs May’s announcement and called for unionists to “unite” around the DUP.
“The prime minister’s decision to go to Parliament to seek a general election on June 8 provides the people of Northern Ireland with the opportunity to vote for the Union,” Mrs Foster said.
“The Democratic Unionist Party has been a strong voice for Northern Ireland at Westminster and we have used the mandate given to us to ensure the interests of Northern Ireland are to the fore.
“The forthcoming election will be an opportunity for unionists to unite around a strong Democratic Unionist Party that will advocate for them in Parliament,” Mrs Foster added.
Mr Swann said his party’s two MPs had been “positive” and “pragmatic” representing the Province at Westminster, and called on anyone not registered to vote to do so.
He said: “This election will be about strengthening the hand of the United Kingdom in forthcoming Brexit negotiations.
“NI needs strong representation in Westminster now more than ever, arguing the best case for Northern Ireland. Tom Elliott and Danny Kinahan have proven that Ulster Unionist MPs can be that positive, pragmatic voice for Northern Ireland.”
The North Antrim MLA added: “Following the March election I would encourage everyone to ensure they are registered to vote and that if necessary they secure postal and proxy votes for June 8 to ensure their voice is heard at the ballot box.”
The Ulster Unionist MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, Tom Elliott, said an electoral pact with the DUP is not a foregone conclusion but a “matter for wider discussion.”
Mr Elliott added: “I am assuming there will be discussions. It’s a matter of having those discussions and seeing if there is any room for agreement, but because the election has just been called it is very early days.”
Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland, said the election would be an “opportunity to oppose Brexit and Tory austerity”.
Ms O’Neill said: “Sinn Féin opposed Brexit because it will be disastrous for the people of Ireland, our economy and our public services.
“The people of the North clearly voted to see their future in the European Union in the referendum last June. We have been blatantly ignored by Theresa May since.”
She added: “The Tory party’s reckless Brexit agenda offers nothing to the people of the North who are being dragged out of the EU against our will.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the prime minister’s “rush to call” a snap Westminster election “reflects the disdain she holds for Northern Ireland” and the attempts to restore the power-sharing Executive.
Naomi Long said it would be “disgraceful” for any party to use the general election to stall or withdraw from the current talks on political progress in Northern Ireland.
The Alliance leader also said that Mr Swann’s decision on an “undemocratic” electoral pact with the DUP would “either make or break” his party.
“In terms of Northern Ireland, Alliance only lost the 2015 election due to a five-party unionist pact in East Belfast. Only weeks ago, Robin Swann was elected as UUP leader and made a pledge his party would be different to the DUP.
“Now he faces the challenge to prove that and not slide back into an undemocratic agreement with other parties. The decision he takes will either make or break his party,” Mrs Long said.
“Alliance will be contesting this election on a platform of providing good government and opposing a hard Brexit, while seeking a special deal to address the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.”