Sir Jeffrey Donaldson will call on unionists to back protocol deal if it meets party's seven tests

The DUP leader has said he is not afraid to stand up for a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol that he supports, even if other unionists oppose it.

In a sit-down interview with UTV's Political Editor Tracey Magee for View from Stormont, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he wants to work with other unionists to secure a deal they can all support.

He said: "Greater unionist unity and co-operation, for me, is important to make the case for the union and to safeguard Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom.

"But ultimately if we get an agreement or legislation at Westminster that meets our seven tests, we will not be afraid to stand up and say 'this is the right thing' and we will call on unionists to support it."

In July 2021, the DUP leader set out seven tests which he said will need to be passed if his party is to support the government's plans on the Protocol.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said they must include a promise of no checks on any sort of goods being sent to Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Asked about the Government's decision to take responsibility to build so-called border posts between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the DUP leader said he thinks "the Government is wrong to do this".

"Because if this is about implementing the current protocol arrangements then we are strongly and vehemently opposed to this," he said.

"We have been consistently and will continue to oppose measures that are designed to implement and impose the protocol on Northern Ireland in a harmful way."

Sir Jeffrey added: "If the government is labouring under the illusion that imposing a deal on Northern Ireland without the support of unionists will create the kind of foundation for restoring devolution here and getting the stability that we need on a cross-community basis then I'm afraid that just isn't the case.

"We need to have an outcome here that unionists can support."

The interview was conducted on Monday afternoon just as the UK and the European Union released a joint statement declaring that the two have agreed to continue “scoping work” to solve the dispute over the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol, as gaps in their positions remained despite talks.

Sir Jeffrey said there was a "long road to travel".

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said they would continue to search for “potential solutions” in a “constructive and collaborative spirit”.

There had been speculation ahead of their virtual meeting on Monday that the two sides were edging towards a breakthrough, but Downing Street said there are “still gaps”.

"When we met James Cleverly last week in Belfast," Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said. "It was clear to me that there was still a considerable gap here between the UK and the EU.

"I therefore am not surprised that we're not in a position at this stage to have any kind of substantive declaration. I think there's still some very important issues to be resolved in these negotiations."

The interview came as James Cleverly and Maros Sefcovic held a virtual meeting on Monday. Credit: UTV

Responding to the suggestion that the DUP is lurching to the right to satisfy TUV leader Jim Allister and loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson, Sir Jeffrey said the idea "is simply not based in reality".

"I don't need anybody to hold my hand," he said. "I'm perfectly capable of standing on my own two feet with my party and holding to the mandate that we've been given.

"Who gave us that mandate? It wasn't the TUV, it wasn't anyone else. The mandate was given to us by the people who voted for this party to stand up and speak up for unionism."

He added: "I'm proud of the stand we've taken. It's been difficult. It's been challenging.

"But I believe that in the end, if we get the outcome we need, it will be good for Northern Ireland and it will restore stability in devolution that will have the support of unionists."

The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed to by Boris Johnson as prime minister in 2019 as a way of breaking the Brexit deadlock.

In order to avoid a border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, it moved customs and food safety checks and processes to the Irish Sea, creating economic and administrative barriers on the movement of goods between Great Britain and NI.

The protocol is vehemently opposed by many unionists and the DUP is blocking the functioning of a devolved government in Stormont in protest at the arrangements.

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