Following Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s appointment as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Feargal Cochrane an Emeritus Professor of International Conflict Analysis at the University’s School of Politics and International Relations, has commented:
‘There are opportunities as well as fundamental problems facing Sir Jeffrey Donaldson as new leader of the DUP. Ironically, the fact that his colleagues rejected him first time around and picked Edwin Poots who proved hopelessly incapable in the role to the point they activated the ejector seat 21 days into his tenure, actually strengthens Donaldson’s internal position within the party. They had nowhere else to turn after the fiasco of Edwin Poots’ leadership – which gives Donaldson more room to manoeuvre in terms of where he takes the party – in the short term at least.
‘Donaldson is a pragmatist and a canny political operator, emerging as a key unionist figure within the Ulster Unionist Party when he walked out of the Good Friday Agreement negotiations at their conclusion in 1998, publicly abandoning his party leader David Trimble and eventually jumping ship to the DUP, the party he now leads. He understands the broad unionist family and having spent 24 years as a Westminster MP, Donaldson also has strong networks at Westminster. These connections along with his experience will be critical in his attempts to lead the party out of its current malaise and address the array of policy challenges ahead.
‘Donaldson has already made it clear that he intends to take up the role of First Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive. The route to him doing so is currently unclear as he will have to resign his Westminster seat and wait for an opportunity to be elected (or co-opted) into the Northern Ireland Assembly. This means that Paul Givan, the current First Minister, who was installed two weeks ago by Edwin Poots, will have to step aside in the months ahead.
‘While undertaking these political engineering works, Donaldson will also have to set about addressing the huge challenges that face his leadership – the same issues that brought down both of his predecessors. Poots’s decision to nominate Paul Givan as First Minister while allowing the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis to bring in an Irish Language Act via Westminster legislation, lost him his job. Donaldson is too canny a politician to step on a similar landmine and while the Irish Language Act is now a done deal, there are other red lines he will be careful of crossing.
‘In the short term he will have to repair the bruised relationship with Sinn Fein and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and demonstrate that there is sufficient common ground on key issues to make the Assembly and governing Executive viable. Secondly, Donaldson needs to arrest the DUP’s decline in the polls which, if maintained until the Assembly election scheduled for next year, would likely result in Sinn Fein becoming the largest party and Michelle O’Neill taking over as First Minister.
‘Sitting above all of this in terms of political priorities of course is the DUP’s approach to Brexit and in particular how they set about their goal of getting rid of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Warnings and threats of violence on the streets from those close to loyalist paramilitaries (and repeated by the DUP) has produced some movement from the EU in terms of how the Protocol is being implemented. However, this is likely to produce a Pyric victory at most for Donaldson in the longer term.
‘An EU agreement to further extend grace periods for exports between GB and Northern Ireland will help to normalise the trade border in the Irish Sea, further mitigate the problems of GB to NI trade, and increasingly conflict with the DUP narrative that it is not working. An attempt to build soft power across a broadly progressive unionist coalition in Northern Ireland, which then bridges across to London, would be much more likely to achieve results in terms of the UK’s approach to the Protocol.
‘Equally, a DUP that demonstrates that it respects the Irish culture and that builds a good working relationship with Sinn Fein and other aspects of Irish nationalism is likely to be the most effective one for strengthening the political status quo in Northern Ireland.’
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