The DUP’s Edwin Poots has described the Assembly election result as “a wake up call for unionism”.
But the former Health Minister, who retained his seat in Lagan Valley, said it’s now vital that the parties work together to get the Stormont institutions up and running as soon as possible.
“This was a wake up call for unionism,” he said. “Unfortunately nationalists and republicans turned out in a way they haven’t done for a long time. We made a contribution to that. We have managed to get nationalists and republicans angry and that has led to them winning more seats as well and that’s something that we have to reflect on.
“Ultimately, no matter how entrenched our positions are we have to get to the point where Northern Ireland as an entity needs to work for its people. We’re not leaving the United Kingdom anytime soon so we need to make it work in the best interests of the people and that’s where we have to get to whenever it comes to negotiations.”
Warning that a prolonged period of direct rule could mean the Westminster government looking again at issues such as water rates and tuition fees, Mr Poots said such a situation would be “a very brutal wake up call for anyone who thinks it’s a good idea.”
“There are some tough negotiations to take place, but I am not without hope. I still think it’s the best way forward,” he continued. “Having a devolved administration can deliver in a way that Westminster never could.
“Ourselves and Sinn Fein have to get over whatever problems we have and ensure that we can respond to the real needs of the public, particularly in terms of health, education and the other issues that really matter for the people of Northern Ireland.”
Reflecting on the outcome of the poll in Lagan Valley, Mr Poots said he was delighted to retain his place at Stormont, but was bitterly disappointed at the loss of a unionist seat to the SDLP.
“It was a tough election campaign and I’m deeply disappointed that we lost Brenda Hale, particularly in the circumstances where the Ulster Unionist Party votes transferred to Pat Catney in greater numbers and ensured that a unionist seat was lost to nationalism as a consequence.”
Stating that he was glad to see Mike Nesbitt quit as leader of the UUP, Mr Poots added: “Any notion that there was going to be some Unionist-SDLP takeover was completely misplaced and therefore his talk of switching to nationalists after voting Ulster Unionist has ensured that the unionist position within the Assembly has been badly damaged and that’s deeply regrettable.”
Asked if the DUP in Lagan Valley is 100 per cent behind party leader Arlene Foster, who has been heavily criticised over her handling of the RHI debacle, Mr Poots said: “We will support Arlene in whatever she chooses to do.”
Stressing that any decision to step aside temporarily or quit the party leadership would be “entirely her call”, he added: “I have no doubt Arlene herself is hurting. She has lost good friends here and she’s hurting a bit, so I have no doubt that Arlene’s reflecting on all of this, but we’ll support Arlene in whatever way she wants to move forward.”