Jeffrey Donaldson: 'I won't be going back into Executive' until protocol dealt with
Unionists were urged last night to maximise their vote in the Assembly elections to send a strong message to Westminster.
The call came at the latest rally organised in protest against the Northern Ireland Brexit Protocol.
Those opposed to the protocol, which imposes additional checks on products arriving from Britain, regard it as a border in the Irish Sea and a threat to Northern Ireland's place within the UK.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, TUV leader Jim Allister, UUP councillor Jill Macauley, Baroness Hoey and former Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib addressed the crowd gathered at Crossgar Orange Hall on Friday night.
Sir Jeffrey was applauded as he said his party would not re-enter the Stormont Executive until the government acts to "protect Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom".
Paul Givan resigned as first minister earlier this year as part of the DUP's action against the protocol in a move which also removed deputy first minister Michelle O'Neill from the joint office.
"The only leverage we have is our participation in those institutions, that is the reality, and if we continue to do business as usual we will be taken for granted," Sir Jeffrey said.
"When I became leader of my party I gave the government notice that if they didn't act I would take certain actions and I gave them longer than I had intended because we had (the) pandemic and I wanted to give the opportunity for the UK Government to do the right thing and the reality is the Prime Minister has not done the right thing, he has not acted to protect Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom and therefore I acted in the way I said I would.
"I come under attack for that, from the usual suspects, those who wanted the rigorous implementation of the protocol, and I faced them today and they told me again the only answer was to get back into the Executive.
"But I am very clear, I will not be going back into the Executive until this matter is dealt with."
The DUP leader also called for unionist unity in opposition to the protocol.
He said unionist leaders met on Monday and discussed the "need for greater unionist unity and co-operation in the forthcoming election".
"That's what I want to happen," he said.
"I want our votes to transfer to the other unionist candidates."
He said that in his own constituency of Lagan Valley his party is reviewing whether it will run three candidates as it intended, to maximise unionist representation.
He said he believes unionists can win four seats in the constituency.
There are currently three unionist MLAs in the constituency, as well as one Alliance and one SDLP MLA.
Baroness Hoey said it is time for unionism to "wake up", claiming it had compromised too much over the years.
"I believe we must do our utmost to get anti-protocol candidates elected," she said.
"Make sure all your family are registered to vote. Make sure every single person you know understands the importance of the protocol."
Mr Habib urged unionists to "stand up and be counted", warning that a weak vote for unionists will send a pro-nationalist and pro-protocol message to Westminster.
He said the next step would be a border poll, claiming Prime Minister Boris Johnson "cannot be relied on".
"You have to stand up and be counted," he said.
Ms Macauley also called for a strong unionist vote at the forthcoming Assembly elections.
She described a "pivotal moment for unionism" and branded the protocol a threat to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, adding that it needs to be replaced.
Mr Allister urged the UK to not "sit back, hiding behind endless jaw-jaw with Brussels".
"It's time Boris Johnston regained full control over this UK territory and, until he does, there will be no stability or end to protest," he said.