New DUP leader rocked by MLA resignation on first day

New DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has been rocked by the resignation of a Stormont MLA.

Alex Easton’s statement announcing his decision to leave the party after 21 years comes on Sir Jeffrey’s first full day in the leadership role.

The North Down MLA, who will now sit as an independent, cited a lack of “respect, discipline or decency” within the DUP as one of the reasons he is quitting the party.

His move comes after two months of unprecedented internal turmoil for the party.

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’ demise came only weeks after he narrowly defeated Sir Jeffrey 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,” said Mr Easton.

“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.”

General Election 2019
Alex Easton has quit the DUP (Liam McBurney/PA)

After formally being ratified as leader by members of the DUP executive on Wednesday night Sir Jeffrey vowed to unite the party after several weeks of turbulence.

Sir Jeffrey also said he expected Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “right the wrong” of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The party’s 130-strong executive met at the La Mon Hotel to approve his appointment on Wednesday.

Sir Jeffrey, the party’s 58-year-old Westminster leader, was the only candidate to put his name forward for the DUP leadership after the dramatic resignation of Mr Poots earlier this month.

Speaking to the media after he was confirmed as leader, Sir Jeffrey said: “What we have seen tonight is our party coming together, healing, uniting, looking to the future and drawing a line under what has happened in the past.

“There are many challenges ahead but I am confident now that the DUP will face those challenges together.

“I am confident that the party will now build towards the Assembly elections and I intend to work to ensure that once again the Democratic Unionist Party prevails in the election.

“I intend over the coming weeks and months to get out, into and across Northern Ireland, to meet with people, listen to what people have to say, understand their concerns and then we will seek to address those concerns.”

Referring to recent discord within the party, Sir Jeffrey said: “There has been a lot of talking, I have spent time over the past few days talking quietly to colleagues, including Edwin (Poots).

“There have been things we have said to each other, recognising the hurt that has been caused. I think that has been good, it has been cathartic for the party and I think there is now a united determination. There is a desire to unite, to draw together, because in our unity is our strength.”

Sir Jeffrey also referred to the ongoing row over the Northern Ireland Protocol after a High Court ruling on Wednesday said that it conflicts with legislation that created the United Kingdom but is still lawful.

DUP leadership
Edwin Poots leaving the La Mon Hotel, Belfast, after the ruling executive of the DUP ratified Sir Jeffrey Donaldson as the new party leader (Liam McBurney/PA)

Sir Jeffrey said: “I have said to the Prime Minister in the House of Commons that the Protocol doesn’t just impact on trade, it impacts on our constitution. The Government has a duty to put right what has been done.

“At the heart of the agreement which protects the peace process is the principle of consent. I expect the Prime Minister to put right this wrong, I expect the Prime Minister to take the action that is required to restore our place within the UK.”

The new leader has made clear his intent to return from Westminster to assume the First Minister’s job at Stormont.

However, the timeline for that move remains unclear. He would have to trigger a parliamentary by-election in Lagan Valley in order to re-enter the Assembly and it is unclear whether he would want to prompt such a contest in the near future, given the DUP’s recent poor poll ratings.

Sir Jeffrey is due to make his first keynote speech as party leader at a Belfast hotel on Thursday morning.