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Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has insisted he is looking forward to leading the DUP into a new Stormont Executive, but said the Brexit Protocol must be dealt with first.
The DUP leader said he is hopeful that after the Assembly elections later this week the UK Government will take “decisive action to deal with the issues around the protocol”.
Sir Jeffrey said that “will enable us then to get the Executive properly functioning again”.
In an interview with the PA news agency ahead of Thursday’s polling day, Sir Jeffrey said his party will be there on day one after the election to sit down with the other parties to agree a programme for government and a budget.
The Executive was left unable to fully function in February when DUP first minister Paul Givan resigned in protest over the state of the protocol.
Unionists object to the post-Brexit trading arrangements with additional checks on goods arriving from Great Britain creating a border in the Irish Sea.
Sir Jeffrey said he believes people recognise the DUP’s actions have been “measured and proportionate”.
“We haven’t collapsed Stormont, the ministers in the departments remain in place, the Assembly was able to continue legislating right up to the election,” he said.
“But we just couldn’t continue pretending that everything was OK, it isn’t, and the protocol is harming our economy, it is undermining political stability in Northern Ireland, it has changed our constitutional status as part of the United Kingdom and we can’t ignore these things, so we wanted to bring this to a head.
“I want to lead the DUP into an Executive but we need to address the issues around the protocol.
“This needs to be resolved, it needs to be resolved now and that’s my focus immediately after the election, alongside talking to other parties about a programme for government and the budget.”
A recent opinion poll has suggested that Sinn Fein may make history when votes are counted by becoming the first Irish nationalist or republican party to become the biggest party at the Stormont.
This would entitle Sinn Fein to nominate a first minister for the first time
Sir Jeffrey emphasised he believes the DUP will win the election, and is targeting gains in West Belfast and Fermanagh South Tyrone.
While he has previously refused to commit to nominate a deputy first minister to serve with a Sinn Fein first minister, he insisted his party can work with them.
“I think that, at least on the unionist side, people recognise the importance of having a unionist first minister,” he said.
“That’s not to say we can’t work with Sinn Fein and the other parties in the Executive, we have done that and will continue to do that, but in the end I think most political parties enter an election to win and the DUP has entered this election to win.”
Sir Jeffrey also defended his attendance at anti-protocol rallies.
Political rivals have expressed concern at the rallies “raising the temperature”, but Sir Jeffrey said “genuine concerns people have” must be listened to.
“I think it’s very important that we provide leadership, and I am not prepared to join in the silencing of voices, voices that might be difficult to hear but nevertheless must be heard,” he said.
“If people want to protest lawfully and peacefully then that is their democratic right and I will uphold that right.
“I think leadership is about standing up and talking to and listening to people, even people you may disagree with.
“Throughout my political career I have found myself sharing platforms with people, and I may not always agree with everything that they say, they will probably not agree with everything that I say but we have to listen to each other.
“We have to listen to the genuine concerns that people have, and I want to ensure that where there is opposition to the protocol, where people want to protest, that we provide a platform to enable them to do so peacefully and lawfully, and I think that is the way forward in respect of opposition to the protocol.”
Meanwhile, after a bruising 2021 when former DUP leader Arlene Foster resigned before her successor Edwin Poots also quit, Sir Jeffrey said under his leadership the party is “much more united now”.
He said he has canvassed for Mr Poots, who moved to the constituency of South Belfast following the sudden death of DUP MLA Christopher Stalford, adding he is very pleased with the reception his colleague is getting.
While traditionally the DUP had been strongly associated with the Free Presbyterian Church, Sir Jeffrey said the party is a “very broad church” and “very representative of the wider unionist community”.
“Of course, its core values remain, but it is also a party that I think has ideas and a vision for Northern Ireland that we have outlined in our five point plan that I think is attracting a lot of support, right across the community,” he said.
“People recognise in this election that it is a clear choice between the leadership of the DUP and our five-point plan to fix the NHS, to improve our education system, to create jobs for our young people, to support working families and struggling households with the cost of living and to remove the Irish Sea border, and of course, Sinn Fein’s divisive border poll plan.
“It’s a clear choice, and I think the DUP is on course to win this election.”