AFTER Sir Jeffrey Donaldson lost the Democratic Unionist Party’s leadership election to Edwin Poots six weeks ago, the victor failed to mention his defeated rival in his acceptance speech. Apart from the lack of courtesy and respect that this betrayed, it seemed to imply that the Lagan Valley MP’s time as an influential figure in the DUP was effectively over.
When he was a young man, some unionists believed Donaldson was unionism’s heir apparent. He became the Ulster Unionist Party’s youngest Stormont representative in 1985, and, before he defected to the DUP in 2003, he was spoken of as a precocious talent who might eventually replace David Trimble as UUP leader.
Following his defeat to Poots, it seemed that his career would instead end in anti-climax. Then, a chaotic series of events brought about an unlikely turnaround in Donaldson’s fortunes.
When on the 28th May Poots replaced Arlene Foster as DUP leader, most commentators argued that the party had returned to its traditional hardline roots. Foster was often pilloried by opponents for her perceived ‘disrespect’ to Irish nationalism and depicted in cartoons as a stern Orangewoman, with a sash and five o’clock shadow. But she appeared modern and moderate in comparison to Poots; an adherent of Ian Paisley’s fiercely evangelical Free Presbyterian Church, who believes the world is 6,000 years old.
We were assured that the DUP was ushering in a new era of intransigence, shaped by a fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity and intolerance of Irish nationalism. Except, that’s not quite how things turned out.
With its usual cynicism and opportunism, Sinn Fein immediately threatened to bring down power-sharing by refusing to nominate a deputy first minister to serve alongside the new DUP leader’s choice as first minister. Rather than face down this ultimatum, Poots tried hard to avoid confrontation. He indicated he would not block the enactment of Irish language legislation, which the Shinners demanded as payment for their blackmail.
Despite his conciliatory tone, the threats to collapse Stormont continued. At which point, the Conservative & Unionist Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, stepped in, pledging to pass the laws at Westminster and encroach on policy areas specifically devolved to Stormont.
Against the overwhelming opposition of his party’s MLAs, Poots accepted this arrangement and nominated his acolyte, Paul Givan, as first minister. He now claims that, in return for his cooperation on Irish language laws, the government promised a ‘significant victory’ on the despised Northern Ireland Protocol.
In that telling, the secretary of state’s capitulation to Sinn Fein’s threats, and Poots’ agreement to that capitulation, became a hard-nosed piece of wheeler-dealing. By his own admission, though, the government could offer no details of how the Protocol would be altered to satisfy unionists.
Clearly, DUP representatives were sceptical, because Poots was forced to resign as leader before the day was out. He’d been in post for only three weeks, had presided over a purge of his internal opponents and yet his colleagues would have to start their leadership deliberations all over again.
As a result, it now seems Donaldson will lead unionism’s biggest party after all.
When nominations for the DUP’s latest internal election closed at 12 noon on Tuesday, he was the only declared candidate. The party’s electoral college and executive will ratify its new leader at meetings over the weekend and next week.
If these formalities are completed as expected and Donaldson claims the top job in unionist politics, it will not be in the circumstances that he would once have envisaged.
The DUP was already worried about its performance in recent opinion polls. Now, it has dismissed two leaders in little more than a month and seems riven with infighting. It will be a challenge to persuade voters that it is stable, dependable and focussed on Northern Ireland’s problems, rather than its own internal difficulties.
The greatest of these problems, of course, is the Protocol, which is daily wrenching the province further away from Great Britain politically and economically. Unionists are furious about this arrangement, but Irish nationalists and pro-Brussels’ liberals (in league with the EU) demand incessantly and aggressively that an even deeper internal border should divide up the UK.
Whether or not Donaldson has an answer to this conundrum, he certainly doesn’t offer the DUP a ‘fresh start’. He’s been involved deeply in many of the party’s missteps over recent years, including its handling of the ‘legacy’ of Troubles’ violence. At the heart of the Stormont House Agreement were arrangements that threatened to focus investigations on a small number of killings blamed on the state, rather than the vast majority of murders perpetrated by the IRA.
So far, Donaldson has spoken about opposing the Protocol robustly. He says that it is ‘not realistic’ to expect stability in Northern Ireland while an Irish Sea border separates it from the rest of Britain. Sources close to the leader-designate say, “he will demand no barriers to trade and demand there is full respect of the Act of Union or he will pull the DUP out of the Assembly.”
We will have to wait and see whether this rhetoric becomes action and whether, in due course, it removes the Protocol or at least mitigates its worst effects.
If Donaldson is to stabilise his party and strengthen the Union, though, he will need reserves of political guile and skill that have not recently been apparent in the DUP. Most of all, he will need to be firm and resilient against constant threats from republicanism, as well as the voices from Brussels, Dublin and elsewhere pressuring unionists to simply accept the constitutional vandalism that the Protocol inflicts on the Union.
Photo by Chris McAndrew: https://beta.parliament.uk/media/rcd3EBUk , CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61323563