"This is nonsense," said Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson when challenged about allegations that he courted a defection to arch rivals the Ulster Unionist Party as recently as June.
Back then the Lagan Valley MP had just lost a bruising battle with Edwin Poots – a creationist – to replace Arlene Foster as leader, the former Stormont first minister ousted amid a rancorous and unusually public schism in the DUP.
At the time Donaldson could not have known that he would go on to clinch victory from the jaws of defeat, by overthrowing Poots to be anointed leader just a matter of weeks later. In fact, he all but ruled out the possibility.
However, suggestions that he was plotting a possible return to his former party, the UUP, resurfaced last Wednesday.
The BBC's Nolan Show reported that Donaldson had held talks with UUP leader Doug Beattie, who was leading a resurgent "Beattie bounce" in his party's fortunes, during the first two weeks of June.
There had been "soundings" that Donaldson was questioning his future in the DUP
That a "private" meeting between the pair took place, in Thiepval British army barracks in Lisburn, Co Antrim, is not disputed by either. Nor is there now any argument that a possible Donaldson defection was on the table.
What is disputed is something political observers say could seriously damage Donaldson's credibility with DUP voters ahead of potentially ground-breaking Stormont Assembly elections in May – whether he seriously considered the move.
Donaldson says he did not do so. Beattie says otherwise, and that, if pushed, he would disclose transcripts of WhatsApp messages that support his claim.
The UUP leader and decorated military veteran, who trades on his “open and honest politician” mantra, said that he spied an opportunity and “reached out” to Donaldson with an offer for him to return to the old fold.
There had been “soundings” that Donaldson was questioning his future in the DUP.
Beattie says after he sent a message to Donaldson making it clear he would be “welcome to come back to the UUP”, the pair agreed to meet up. The talks ended without firm commitment either way from Donaldson, but there was agreement to meet again, according to Beattie.
Events took over, and there was no second meeting.
On Monday, Beattie baulked at any challenge to his “integrity” over his account of what happened. Donaldson was quick to tell reporters he was “not questioning” Beattie’s integrity, but that he had “respectfully declined” his offer.
By Tuesday it was clear the latest allegations were antagonising rivalries within the DUP. Poots moved to deny as “entirely untruthful” that he was the “source” of the claims, which he said were designed to “cause division” within the party.
Neither he nor his allies had been aware of the Beattie-Donaldson meeting at the time or since, he said.
On June 8th, The Irish Times spoke to Donaldson. During the telephone call, he had railed against the direction he saw Poots taking the DUP. The party “no longer offers a broad church and the kind of unionism we espouse”, he said.
When large numbers of disillusioned UUP members followed Donaldson and Foster in joining the DUP ranks in 2003-2004, there was “common cause”.
Moderate unionists, he said, would "have no truck with this fundamentalism" and votes would leak in all directions
“I think that has now come to a head,” Donaldson said, adding that he was “very glum” about the DUP’s prospects. Under Poots, he predicted, the “fundamentalist rump” would plunge from poll-topper to “a poor second or maybe even third behind the UUP”.
The DUP, he said, has “has no chance of being the largest party in the next election.”
Moderate unionists, he said, would "have no truck with this fundamentalism" and votes would leak in all directions. That included the relatively more moderate UUP, the centrist Alliance Party and the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice.
A clutch of resignations from the DUP occurred during Poots’s short-lived leadership, with Beattie talking to a number of those interested in running for council seats.
Such discussions were a “fairly clear” indicator of the “direction of travel”, Donaldson said then. Was there a more coherent, significant DUP exodus in the offing?
“I think that will become evident in the days ahead,” said Donaldson. “There are discussions ongoing internally, and I think people are looking at their options. The direction of travel for those who don’t feel the DUP provides the broad church for them any more will become evident in the days and weeks ahead.”
Significant names such as East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson, former deputy leader Nigel Dodds and then minister for the economy Diane Dodds were among "quite a significant number of senior people" in the party who were "very unhappy".
Unaware of how quickly things were about to change, Donaldson dismissed the chances of a second leadership challenge as “very difficult in the short term”.
Asked if the disaffected could move en masse to another party, he responded: “I don’t know. The discussions are in their infancy.”
While the internal split was not necessarily irreconcilable, he said, the direction of travel suggested the differences were “not going to be reconciled anytime soon”.
There was "a realignment taking place again in unionism", he added
The Irish Times asked Donaldson if a conclusion could be drawn from that.
“You certainly could,” he said. “Watch for developments in the next two to three weeks.”
There was “a realignment taking place again in unionism”, he added, citing the seismic shift that took place when Foster and he defected to the DUP 18 years earlier.
“I think there is the potential for a further realignment within unionism as a result of this fracture. I think it is as fundamental as that,” he said.
“As we speak, it is happening among the voters. The question is: will that be reflected in political unionism? I think it will.”