By Rebecca Black, PA
There has been a mixed reaction to a call by DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson for rival unionists to “work together” in the next Stormont election.
It comes after a recent opinion poll indicated Sinn Fein could overtake the DUP to become the largest party in Northern Ireland after the next Assembly election, due in May.
Becoming the largest party at Stormont would allow Sinn Fein to nominate a first minister.
Sir Jeffrey urged unionists to work together to help return “as many as possible pro-Union, anti-protocol MLAs”.
Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie responded, saying there “will be no pacts”.
TUV leader Jim Allister said his party has “always advocated that unionist voters should vote down the ticket” to maximise the unionist vote.
He added that in the event of Sinn Fein becoming the largest party, the largest unionist party could prevent a first minister being appointed by refusing to nominate a deputy to the joint office.
Sir Jeffrey told the Belfast Telegraph: “I’m fighting an election with the objective of winning and the DUP emerging as the biggest party, but I take nothing for granted.
“Unionism cannot afford for the vote to be fragmented and Sinn Fein come through the middle to emerge as the largest party.
“All resources must be focused on unionism winning this election.
“I hope we can work with the UUP and TUV to ensure we maximise the number of Assembly seats unionism secures and return as many as possible pro-Union, anti-protocol MLAs.
“I respect both Doug and Jim (Allister). They offer strong leadership of their parties and I seek to do the same in the DUP.
“I want to see us all working together to broaden unionist support in the election.”
Mr Beattie said: “We will work with anybody for the good of the people of Northern Ireland. That could be on child poverty, social housing, health, education and promoting the Union itself.
“We have been clear in our opposition to the (Northern Ireland) Protocol and have tabled our own proposals over the course of the last two years to address it.
“All unionist parties reject it and want to see it replaced, and I will co-operate with others to try and achieve that. None of this requires pacts and there will be no pacts.
“As a political party we are confident in our pro-Union message. It is for others to ask if they wish to vote for positive unionism or negative unionism, to vote for a vision for the people of Northern Ireland focused on the future or a backward, protectionist, power-driven vision focused on self-preservation.
“If it is the former, then the vote will be for the Ulster Unionist Party and a Northern Ireland confident with its place within the United Kingdom.”
Mr Allister told the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme: “We have always advocated that unionist voters should vote down the ticket and should maximise the transfers because that is how you maximise the unionist vote, and I’m absolutely clear about that.
“But the whole worry about a Sinn Fein first minister, if Sinn Fein was the biggest party, is very easily resolved.
“There can only ever be a Sinn Fein first minister – if they were the biggest party – if there was a deputy first minister, so the answer lies in unionism’s own hands.
“If unionists are seriously concerned about a Sinn Fein first minister then because it’s a shared office, they refuse to nominate a deputy and therefore there never can be a Sinn Fein first minister.
“That’s the TUV’s position. If we were the biggest unionist party, there never would be a Sinn Fein first minister.”