The DUP blew two chances to scupper a border poll, the former leader of the Ulster Unionists has said.

Mike Nesbitt made the comments amid a row over remarks by former DUP leader Peter Robinson after he suggested that unionists should make preparations in case a border referendum is called in the future.

The Strangford MLA yesterday issued a stinging assessment of the current situation, attacking both the DUP and Mr Robinson.

He said there was little merit in Mr Robinson criticising how a border poll should be carried out, as the DUP had two opportunities to influence or change the rules – but had failed to grasp them.

Mr Nesbitt said: “Peter Robinson’s concerns appear to be more about what we used to call the modalities of conducting a border poll and here he re-writes history with gusto.

“In 2007, his party sought the electoral mandate that would propel them into government with Sinn Fein, based on an election manifesto that opened with this stirring claim: ‘We have achieved what many of our opponents said was impossible. We have successfully renegotiated the Belfast Agreement’.

“Yet in 2018, he rails against the provisions for a border poll: it should not have been negotiated in the first place; it should not be left to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to decide to call one; it should not be possible to hold one every seven years after the first; there should be a role for locally elected representatives in the event of a negative outcome.

“That’s a long list of failures by Mr Robinson and the DUP negotiating team who claimed they fixed all the Good Friday ‘failures’ at St Andrews.

“It also ignores the fact that the DUP walked away from the 1998 negotiations, preferring instead to stand outside the gates, screaming “Lundy”, “traitor” and “sell-out” at those doing their best for the unionist community.

“You cannot argue against the assertion the Belfast Agreement would have been better for unionism if the DUP had been at the table, because if you do, you are arguing the DUP are without influence.

“Frankly, to bemoan that a border poll could be called under what he calls ‘the existing precarious rules and procedures’ is to admit a gross failure to address the matter when he could – and he had two chances, in 1998 and 2006.”

The former First Minister has also said he believed that a simple “majority of one” outcome would be a “recipe for chaos” across the island.

But Mr Nesbitt criticised Mr Robinson’s suggestion that a simple majority in favour of Irish unity should not be enough to pass it – as the DUP had seen it as acceptable for the EU membership poll.

Mr Nesbitt said that “to caution against a border poll that invites a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to a simple single choice question is to admit the 2016 Brexit Referendum was a rank bad idea; yet his party spent several hundred thousand pounds promoting a response to that simple single choice question.

“And to warn against a 50%+1 formula for change not only attempts to redefine the consent principle that is the jewel in the crown of the Belfast Agreement, it ignores the fact he has very little wriggle room, given the DUP accept 52% is good enough for Brexit.”

Mr Robinson’s recent interventions have also exposed a deep rift in the DUP, with East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson leading criticism of his former leader.

The debate began last month when Mr Robinson said unionists should be prepared for the possibility of reunification with the Republic or risk the same kind of chaos that has followed the UK’s Brexit vote.

Mr Wilson then accused him of giving encouragement to the republican cause by even countenancing the possibility of a vote.

However, Mr Robinson hit back, accusing unionists who caution against talking about a border poll of engaging in “claptrap” and “crass folly”.

Mr Wilson responded by saying that Mr Robinson was “plain wrong”.

However, hours later, the DUP issued a statement saying that Mr Robinson had worked with the party while writing the opinion piece for the Belfast Telegraph.

It was also revealed that Ms Foster had read the final draft before it appeared in the newspaper and agreed with Mr Robinson’s comments.

A DUP spokesman said: “Peter is a private citizen and is at liberty to express his views.”

Mr Wilson and the DUP were last night unavailable for comment on the matter.

Mr Nesbitt concluded: “Peter Robinson boasted that the Assembly and Executive of 2007 was the first Stormont administration to go full- term since the 1960s. He spoke for the DUP in those days and who knows, maybe he will speak for the party again.

“Peter Robinson denies he sees himself as the white knight to put the political pieces back together again, but he is a politician who knows you never say never. Arlene Foster is publicly supportive of her former boss. She might exercise caution in her praise. After all, she might be feeding a crocodile.”

Belfast Telegraph

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