There’s a growing expectation that the Stormont institutions will be restored in the coming days after Sir Jeffrey Donaldson faced down his critics with the warning that “a unionism that turns in on itself is not the way to go”.
In an impassioned speech in the House of Commons, the DUP leader turned on those he shared platforms with at anti-protocol rallies less than two years ago, criticising hardline rival TUV for securing “not a single thing” in changing the post-Brexit trade arrangements.
As MPs voted to extend the deadline for restoring the institutions until February 8, Sir Jeffrey revealed that he had faced threats for engaging with the British government over recent months.
He attacked the “tiny minority” whom he said “don’t want Stormont back” and pledged to continue to seek a resolution to the issues which he claimed had “harmed Northern Ireland”.
He said others were attempting to “orchestrate opposition to a deal that has not yet taken place”.
The Lagan Valley MP’s address was arguably the strongest indication yet that he plans to push for a DUP return to Stormont.
It is understood he must first gain the support of the 12 DUP party officers while quelling public dissent from leading hardliners, such as Lord Nigel Dodds and Sammy Wilson.
A resolution agreed by the officer board would then be put to a full DUP executive meeting, with Friday February 2 earmarked as the most likely date.
If Sir Jeffrey secures the necessary support, the assembly and executive could be restored the following week.
His remarks at Westminster came after former secretary of state Julian Smith suggested the DUP had negotiated a “very good deal” on issues around post-Brexit trade.
But the DUP leader revealed that his engagement with the British government in the aftermath of last February’s Windsor Framework had led to threats.
“I’m proud of the service that I have given, unlike some others, to my country when I put on the uniform of the Ulster Defence Regiment to protect everyone in the community from terrorism and violence,” he said.
“And yet today, because of the stirring up that is going on, I was threatened, threatened by those who never put on a uniform, by those who haven’t served our country.”
He said he was “working day and night” to find solutions that “the vast majority of people can support”.
“Well I would just say this to those who stir up, and those who threaten: the provisional IRA attacked me in the past, and it didn’t deflect me from the task that I have and my colleagues have to do our job and to get the best that we can for Northern Ireland,” he said.
“And I will not be deflected now. I will continue on the course. I will continue to engage with the Government until we get the progress that is needed to enable us to take a decision about whether it is sufficient to restore the political institutions.”