By Rebecca Black and David Young, PA
Sinn Féin is the largest political party in the Northern Ireland Assembly after a veteran DUP MLA announced his resignation.
Alex Easton's decision to leave the DUP after 21 years gives the party 26 seats in the Assembly. Sinn Féin has 27 seats.
However, the DUP will still hold the role of First Minister in the Northern Executive as they remain the largest unionist party. There is a small unionist majority overall – 40 MLAs identify as unionist, 39 as nationalist.
The North Down MLA, who said he will now sit as an independent, cited a lack of “respect, discipline or decency” within the DUP as among his reasons for resigning.
Mr Easton’s statement announcing his decision to leave the party after 21 years came on DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson’s first full day in the role.
Bitter divisions within the party have been laid bare after successive revolts deposed former leader Arlene Foster and then her successor Edwin Poots, who quit after just 21 days in the job.
Mr Poots’s demise came only weeks after he narrowly defeated Mr Donaldson in the leadership contest to succeed Mrs Foster.
Mr Easton announced his resignation in a statement reported by the Co Down Spectator and Belfast Telegraph on Thursday.
Several party councillors have also quit the DUP in recent weeks.
“It is with great sadness and hurt that I find myself doing one of the hardest things in my life and resigning from the DUP,” Mr Easton’s statement said.
“I have had to stand back and watch as colleagues tear themselves apart, brief against other colleagues and run to the media in order to hurt each other on a daily basis. There is no respect, discipline or decency, I have just had enough.
“This is not something that I want to be a part of as a unionist – it is not Alex Easton. No matter who people supported during the recent leadership contest, I find elements from both sides are equally to blame for recent events, and it continues.”
Mr Easton said he had given 21 years of his life to the DUP. He said it had been an “extremely lonely” experience at times and “few have cared how I have felt”.
He said: “Unionism is in my heart and soul, and I crave unity for the unionist community. I am not getting this from any of the unionist parties or their leaders at present. The Union is slowly being eroded from beneath our feet.”
He also wished the new DUP leader well in his new role, adding he would “like to see a positive and proactive unionism, not a reactive and submissive unionism”.
Mr Donaldson said he was “greatly saddened” to hear of Mr Easton’s decision.
“He’s a hard-working MLA, represents his constituency faithfully,” he told a gathering of his party at the Stormont Hotel in east Belfast.
“I will be reaching out to Alex, I will sit down with him, talk through his concerns and the issues that are important to Alex. My door will be open and the door of this party will be open to Alex, and I hope that one day Alex will find the path back to this party and I will encourage him to do so.”
Mr Donaldson said he had already spoken to other councillors who had decided to become independent and believed some would return to the DUP.
“I want to build a unity in this party,” he said.