New DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson vows to heal party after period of turmoil

New DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has vowed to unite the party after several weeks of turbulence.

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

The Lagan Valley MP was confirmed as new party leader following a meeting of the DUP ruling executive in Belfast.

The party’s 130-strong executive met at the La Mon Hotel to approve the 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 Edwin 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.

DUP leadership
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson speaks to the media after he was ratified as DUP leader (Liam McBurney/PA)

“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.”

The new leader referred to recent internal divisions within the party which were laid bare after successive revolts deposed former leader Arlene Foster and her successor, Mr Poots.

Mr Poots’ demise came only weeks after he narrowly defeated Sir Jeffrey in the leadership contest to succeed Mrs Foster.

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).

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

“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.

He 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 on Thursday.