Sammy Wilson hits out at Peter Robinson as former DUP leader warns the battle for the union is 'raging'

Peter Robinson said many unionists failed to realise that the battle for the union is 'raging'. Picture by Queen's University Belfast/PA Wire
John Manley and David Young

THE public spat between DUP veterans Peter Robinson and Sammy Wilson deepened yesterday as the East Antrim MP suggested speaking of a united Ireland was "adding to the Sinn Féin narrative".

The one-time Stormont executive colleagues are at odds over Mr Robinson's suggestion last week that unionists should make preparations in case a border poll is called in the future.

Mr Wilson accused him of giving encouragement to the republican cause by even countenancing the possibility of a vote.

The former first minister responded in robust terms and, though not mentioning Mr Wilson by name, said unionists who said the issue should not be discussed were talking "claptrap" and were guilty of "crass folly".

"These people have not just buried their heads in the sand, only the soles of their feet are visible above the surface," he said.

Mr Robinson insisted the "battle for the union" was on, whether fellow unionists liked it or not.

"Not only are they advising us not to talk about a border poll, but they don't want us to even talk about the subject matter at the heart of such a poll," he added in an opinion piece in the Belfast Telegraph.

He claimed many unionists failed to realise that "the battle is raging".

The former DUP leader said just as unionists could not prevent a border poll from taking place "neither can they control when our opponents launch their assault on our constitutional status".

"Pulling a paper bag over our heads and thinking that we can thereby close out the impending danger is crazy," he said.

The episode has unfolded almost three years after a retiring Mr Robinson publicly sided with Arlene Foster when Mr Wilson indicated he might run against her in a contest to succeed him as party leader.

Responding to his former leader's latest comments, the East Antrim MP described Mr Robinson as a "formidable advocate" for the union, but said on the issue of a poll he was "just plain wrong".

Mr Wilson denied he was burying his head in the sand or "digging a defensive foxhole".

"It is not enough to say that a referendum is coming, so prepare the terms in case we lose," he said.

"Churchill knew that the Nazis were coming after Britain when they defeated France in 1940 but he didn't prepare terms for the event of a successful invasion, he rallied the people by telling them to prepare to fight on the beaches and in laneways and in the street and to never surrender."

In a further statement further, the East Antrim MP said it was "dangerous" to bolster the republican narrative by suggesting regular border polls.

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann claimed Mr Robinson was "engaged in attempting to rewrite history".

He said the former first minister was rightly criticised for saying that Northern Ireland should be planning for the possibility of a united Ireland.

He said Mr Robinson had sought to blame Mr Swann's party for negotiating the terms on which a border poll could be called by the secretary of state.

"If he didn`t like what was in the Belfast Agreement about a border poll why didn't he negotiate it out at St Andrews or was that, to use his own words, ‘crass folly' on his own behalf?" the UUP leader said.

The North Antrim MLA said rather than "setting out plans for a border poll", the former DUP leader would be better spent "extolling the virtues of the union".

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