Gavin Robinson says there is "still an opportunity for unionist cooperation"

DUP interim leader Gavin Robinson at a press conference at a Sure Start centre in east Belfast - seen here in suit and tie with shite fence in background
-Credit: (Image: Liam McBurney/PA Wire)


The DUP’s interim leader has told rival unionists it is not too late to co-operate to deliver victories for pro-union candidates in several key election battlegrounds in Northern Ireland.

Gavin Robinson also vowed to pursue a “positive” campaign over the coming six weeks, suggesting he would not be engaging in “provocative” tactics.

Mr Robinson was elevated to the party leadership following the shock resignation of Jeffrey Donaldson in March after he was charged with a series of historical sexual offences.

Read more: Jeffrey Donaldson replacement candidate to be decided in "next few days"

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The East Belfast seat held by Mr Robinson and the Lagan Valley seat being vacated by Donaldson are both being targeted by the cross-community Alliance Party.

In both battles a significant split in the unionist vote could prove decisive. The Traditional Unionist Voice party, which is a vociferous critic of the DUP decision to end its boycott on Stormont devolution earlier this year, is hoping to convince disaffected DUP voters to switch allegiances on July 4. The TUV has also recently announced an electoral link-up with Reform UK.

While Reform UK said on Thursday it will not have enough time to register to run in Northern Ireland constituencies, the party has pledged to fully support TUV candidates in the campaign, Including with financial backing.

Meanwhile, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party Doug Beattie has repeatedly made clear he is not in favour of unionist pacts.

“There are a couple of seats for which I think there is still an opportunity for unionist cooperation,” Mr Robinson told reporters in his east Belfast constituency on Thursday.

“And I’ll engage in those conversations, as I have done over the last year, positively and productively. There is a good opportunity here but there’s a choice for the people of Northern Ireland. Do they want to elect people who don’t bother to turn up for them in our national parliament (a reference to Sinn Fein ) or do they want to vote for people who are prepared to go to Westminster and put forward the best case for Northern Ireland as part of this United Kingdom? That’s the history that we have and that’s the message that we will bring.

“We know that there are many within our community that seek co-operation and want to see unionists working together. They don’t like the idea that in an election such as this individuals could go forward and split the vote and remove their voice from Westminster, because this is the opportunity, when the people of Northern Ireland right throughout our society get to make sure they have the strongest voice for this province in our national parliament.”

There has been a lot of speculation as to who might stand for the DUP in Lagan Valley following Donaldson’s exit from the political stage. Deputy First Minister Emma Little Pengelly, Education Minister Paul Givan and Upper Bann MLA Jonathan Buckley are among those touted as potential candidates.

Mr Robinson declined to be drawn on the party’s deliberations on Thursday, insisting that the DUP would unveil its candidates at the “appropriate time”.

He also would not confirm whether the DUP was prepared to stand aside in the North Down constituency to make it easier for independent unionist and former DUP member Alex Easton to challenge the sitting MP, Alliance’s Stephen Farry.

Alliance has said a decision will be made within days on whether leader and current Stormont Justice Minister Naomi Long would be its candidate to challenge Mr Robinson in East Belfast. Mr Robinson insisted his party would offer a “positive” choice to the electorate.

“I think the elections provide people a choice,” he said.

“And people will have the opportunity to choose between our platform and others, recognise that we stand forward on a platform of making Northern Ireland work and go into this election positively.

“There’s always the opportunity for others to get noticed, to try to get traction, or to try to grab headlines by being provocative, by being controversial. No doubt you will see that. I’m not concerned by that because the people recognise what’s before them, they know the opportunity they have. And that’s about presenting a positive choice and voice for Northern Ireland and us and our candidates standing up and speaking out for our province, making it work and representing it well in Parliament.”

The Northern Ireland parties are gearing up for the poll, which will take place during the school holidays, after the surprise announcement by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday.

Sinn Fein has emerged as the largest party in the Assembly and local council elections in the last two years and will be hoping to repeat that success again. The party won seven seats at the last general election, compared with eight for the DUP, the largest unionist party.

Sinn Fein’s South Down MP Chris Hazzard said the election was an opportunity for voters to send out a message over the “systemic underfunding” of public services in Northern Ireland.

He insisted the party was ready to fight the election, and would not be distracted by other polls south of the border in Ireland.

“We have had 14 years of the calamitous, cruel and deadly effects of Tory austerity,” he said.

“We have had Brexit lumbered upon us and we’ve had successive Tory administrations attempt to breach international law and to undermine the Good Friday Agreement. So, July 4, this has to change.”

Alliance’s Mr Farry said the election represented the opportunity for change.

“Here in Northern Ireland we have a huge opportunity to send a different balance of representation to Westminster,” he told the BBC.

He said that a successful election for Alliance would send the message that Northern Ireland is “moving away from the politics of green versus orange”.

Mr Farry said the party would make clear in the coming days if leader Ms Long would be challenging Mr Robinson in East Belfast, a seat she previously held.

Ulster Unionist leader Mr Beattie confirmed he would run a candidate in all 18 Northern Ireland constituencies and was not considering pacts with other unionist parties.

“We speak to other unionist parties on a variety of issues but I have also made it clear I am not somebody who does pacts,” he said.

Mr Beattie also confirmed that he would be writing to Stormont’s speaker to begin the process of Robin Swann being replaced as health minister by Mike Nesbitt. Mr Swann will contest the South Antrim seat in the Westminster poll where he hopes to topple the DUP’s Paul Girvan.

The SDLP is hoping to hold onto its seats in Foyle and South Belfast. Boundary changes have seen the latter seat renamed as Belfast South and Mid Down. Party leader Colum Eastwood conceded he would face a “tough fight” from Sinn Fein in Foyle.

He added: “The real fight here is to get rid of the Tories. We have had 14 years of these people destroying our economy, doing Brexit, bringing in the Legacy Act, stripping our public services of funding. Now there is an opportunity to get rid of them.”

The DUP had blockaded Stormont for two years in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements that have created economic barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Donaldson led the party back to Stormont earlier this year after accepting a Government deal that pledged to reduce Brexit red tape on Irish Sea trade.

While opinion polls have shown a majority of DUP supporters backed the move, a sizeable minority of members believe the deal was oversold and the party relinquished its leverage with little to show for it.

Senior party figures such as Lord Dodds and East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson have openly criticised the deal while external opponents within the wider unionist/loyalist community have been equally vocal.

The TUV may be unlikely to win any seats in the election, but it could still inflict substantial damage on the DUP if enough unionist voters back its more hardline stance on post-Brexit trade barriers.

In regard to the tie-up with Reform UK, a TUV spokesman said on Thursday: “TUV and Reform UK have always been clear that the nature of our arrangement could result in all candidates in this election being TUV candidates if the protracted registration process took too long.

“Our memorandum of understanding with Reform UK is very clear that we share a common set of core values about the unity of the United Kingdom, immigration and a fair taxation system.

“We are delighted that our arrangement with Reform UK gives people the opportunity to vote for a real national movement which stands up for restoring the United Kingdom and is clear that there can be no sea border. This will be a joint TUV/Reform UK campaign with every candidate having the backing of each party."

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