By Edward Ferrin – as Chief Stormont Correspondent
Jeffrey Donaldson is exactly where he has wanted to be since the day he was forcibly removed from Stormont in 1986 by the RUC – at the helm of the unionist leadership. He has manoeuvred himself throughout his political career as an up-and-coming leader in waiting of both the Ulster Unionist Party – yes, he was a member of the UUP until January 2004 – and the Democratic Unionist Party. Ulster Unionism has on many occasions faced the crossroads that Terence O’Neill warned about in his 1968 speech, with each path taken by unionist leaders gliding towards a United Ireland and a border poll. When O’Neill called the “crossroads” election in February 1969, he remarked that Ulster Unionism has tended to maintain a “fortress mentality.” In this case, the Democratic Unionist Party has let the fort down.
The leadership of unionism has been in the hands of the DUP since 2003, in which at the November ’03 assembly election, the UUP (then Jeffrey’s party) fell one seat behind the DUP at Stormont and into third place in popular vote – the DUP was now the dominant unionist force. The failure of wider political unionism to build a new, confident brand of unionism is down to the flaws, mistakes, and failures of the largest unionist party. To coin an anti-Sunningdale slogan, Dublin is just a DUP away! Ian Paisley’s combination of bible and politics within the DUP has come back to haunt the party faithful today. The “Paisleyite” wing of the DUP demonstrated their strong support base in the May 2021 leadership struggle – giving Arlene Foster the boot and electing Edwin Poots as her replacement. Too many long-standing DUP members felt that another UUP defector as party leader would not cut it this time.
Poots was unexpectedly elected leader, winning 19 votes to Donaldson’s 17. Poots faced problems from the start – his win was narrow and unexpected, angering those non-Paisleyite members of the party and he had no major policy changes to bring to the drawing board. However, like with David Trimble, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson didn’t give his victorious opponent the time to outline his plan for the direction of the party and wider unionism.
Poots didn’t make the right decisions when he had the chance to, and simply wasn’t given enough time to make his mark. Arlene Foster’s continuation as First Minister until June, Sinn Fein’s ever-repeated demand for an Irish Language Act, the rules on nominating a new First Minister, public criticism from Jeffrey Donaldson, and a walkout from his first speech at the Crowne Plaza Hotel (Jeffrey walked out) all contributed to his downfall. His decision to nominate Paul Givan for First Minister, rather than let Stormont collapse showed Poots’ willingness to move unionism away from the politics of ransom as Jim Allister argues about – a pity Sir Jeffrey didn’t let Edwin try it first.
At the resulting leadership election, no one stood except Sir Jeffrey. He is acclaimed as the only DUP leader ever to lose a leadership election and still become leader – a sign that the Paisleyite grab for power within the party was short-lived and the leadership was back in the hands of an ex-Ulster Unionist. Jeffrey Donaldson since taking office has become the victim of his own making. He faces the prospect of Sinn Fein becoming the largest party in May, the UUP and TUV closing in on the DUP, and growing discontent with the DUP over the Protocol and COVID. The DUP deserve nothing more!
His leadership has so far been a resemblance of his old mentor, James Molyneaux – a “wait and see” unionist leader who acted far too slowly and was far too naïve in dealing with London. His constant pandering to Boris Johnson (even when he lied and deceived unionists over Brexit), his belief that the Irish Government and the EU is to blame for almost every decision made at Westminster and his delight in talking up the Protocol over other huge problems facing Northern Ireland in the media, shows just a bit that he is out of touch with unionist voters.
When Jeffrey Donaldson was a member of the UUP, he served as part of Molyneaux’s team to the United States and went on to take over the reins of Molyneaux’s Lagan Valley Westminster seat in 1997 for the UUP, then the DUP after 2004. Presenting his credentials as a Westminster MP, he gives the image of a Northern Ireland MP who would prefer to be a “little Englishman” politician. He opposed the Belfast Agreement in 1998, the same agreement he claims to defend against the Protocol today.
Since that moment, Donaldson constantly chastised David Trimble. Striking though was the fact that Donaldson never once challenged Trimble for the UUP leadership, probably observing the fact that the DUP was about to become the biggest party at subsequent elections. The DUP was once strongly opposed to that “Trimble-ism” style of unionism in the early 2000s, but with the help of UUP defectors like Sir Jeffrey, it has now embodied that very same style of politics.
We can thank Peter Robinson and his successor, Arlene Foster for this regurgitated blend of Trimble policies with a tint of Paisleyism. Why Arlene Foster was removed is simply down to her poor handling of RHI, loss of the ball in Brexit and her obsession with the same old depleted argument that every unionist vote for other parties is lost in the fight against Sinn Fein. Her obsession over the need for the DUP to outweigh other unionists is down to the DUP’s making. The nomination of First Minister from the largest party, rather than the largest designation was agreed by the DUP with Sinn Fein. Now when Sinn Fein lead in the polls, the DUP now like to think that they can throw the dummy out and plead with the British Government to revert to the rules of 1998.
Secondly to this argument – does the DUP read a different agreement from the rest of us? It states in law that the office of First Minister and deputy First Minister is shared between unionists and nationalists. The DUP have come off with this nonsense that the First Minister has more power, which they don’t. All this does is question the IQ of some DUP members. Every tough decision David Trimble and John Hume made in the early part of the peace process are now inherited by a party who sat outside the tent, not plucking up the political courage to make them instead. They now share power with Sinn Fein – a feat that Ian Paisley and his party were determined to avoid at all costs in 1998, which they now conveniently forget. If anything, Jeffrey’s abrupt defection to the DUP only six weeks after Ian Paisley defeating Trimble at the polls in 2003 might seem a coincidence or just another move up the ladder of the unionist hierarchy.
As always with DUP election campaigns, Jeffrey’s MLAs and MPs have already fired the first shots against their unionist rivals. Whether its Jonathon Buckley hitting criticism to UUP health minister, Robin Swann, or Pam Cameron and Trevor Clarke both criticising cuts to police funding (which the finance minister gave warning about for weeks), the same police force they so heavily criticised just six months ago. We also mustn’t forget Sammy Wilson – the Northern Ireland MP who wishes to become a disciple of Barry Goldwater and right-wing conservatism. The DUP do at elections what they do best – blame the Ulster Unionists and David Trimble for things that have happened under their watch.
The DUP’s brand of unionism is not to promote, but to defend the things that tie Northern Ireland with the rest of the United Kingdom. Its pre-occupation with reverting to orange vs. green politics, social conservatism, abuse of power like petitions of concern, have all pushed Northern Ireland further away from GB and are sleepwalking unionists towards Dublin and a united Ireland. Its broad-church approach to leading unionism doesn’t satisfy the core-Paisleyite wing of the party, preventing unionism from building an attractive, progressive vision for Northern Ireland. Its constant criticism of other unionist parties for the party’s electoral gains, one-to-one carve ups with Sinn Fein in the corridors of power has not preserved the cause of unionism one bit and has instead, alienated working class unionists from taking part in the political process and strengthening unionism’s hand.
Quite frankly put like this, how could any DUP member seriously watch Jeffrey Donaldson criticise the UUP or TUV or say that a vote for Ulster Unionists or Jim Allister is a vote for Sinn Fein and not see the irony in his statement, considering he was originally a UUP member and then a “blow in” within the DUP. Jeffrey’s personal ambition to leading unionism has finally come, but how long will his second political home be prepared to put up with his style of unionism?
If unionist voters had any sense at the forthcoming election, they shall acclaim Jeffrey Donaldson with a long list of achievements: power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Fein, the Northern Ireland Protocol, constant threats to the political institutions, the prospect of a border poll in the future, fractured unionism (in 1998, 2003, 2005 and 2021), Boris Johnson in 10 Downing Street, Michelle O’Neill as the next First Minister. Unionism can’t afford another five years of the same backward, visionless, orange vs. green, naïve brand of politics and Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP will offer nothing more than just that. The next Unionist leader needs to have a proven record of political courage and Jeffrey Donaldson doesn’t hold such a record.