New DUP leader will have many challenges after party’s ‘darkest moment’

North faces potential for a long, difficult summer as marching season gets under way

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson arrives at the DUP headquarters in Belfast for a meeting of the party officers on Thursday. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson arrives at the DUP headquarters in Belfast for a meeting of the party officers on Thursday. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

The outgoing DUP leader Edwin Poots faced many challenges but his replacement will face even more.

The likelihood is that the new leader will be the man Poots defeated, albeit by the narrowest of margins: the Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson.

Whereas most of the party officers tried to dodge the media on their way into the crisis meeting with Poots on Thursday afternoon, Donaldson strolled along the footpath as if on a country walk, enjoying the “lovely day”.

Yet if his outward countenance was that of a man looking forward to finally taking the helm, inwardly he must be aware that the party he might inherit is suffering the painful wounds from a bitter and protracted leadership dispute.

If Poots had a job of work to do to unite the party – a task in which he failed in dramatic fashion – then his successor must now bring together a party which is not just internally divided but fundamentally damaged by its very public implosion on Thursday.

“I think it’s very unfortunate, very sad,” the DUP MLA Jim Wells told the BBC on Friday. “The DUP didn’t have a leadership election for 50 years and now we’re going to have two in 50 days.”

It is clear that much healing is needed. Attention now focuses on the First Minister, Paul Givan, the timing of whose nomination on Thursday brought Poots’s house of cards tumbling down.

While Poots fell, the Assembly remained standing, and despite all the turmoil of Thursday an Executive meeting was able to take place and crucial decisions were made, including not to lift certain Covid-19 restrictions.

Allowing Givan to remain as First Minister would provide the new DUP leader with some breathing space, and – with Givan firmly in the Poots camp – could prove a useful olive branch for a new leader seeking to bridge that divide.

‘A mess for us all’

It would also, in the short-term, bring some much-needed stability to the power-sharing institutions, not least by avoiding another seven-day countdown similar to that which could have brought down the Assembly earlier this week.

In recent days, the other Executive parties have spoken with varying degrees of frustration at the need to get on with business. The difficulty, says the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, is that a mess for one is “a mess for us all”.

“I think this is all a legacy of the approach of those two parties [the DUP and Sinn Féin] which is cultural war first, delivery second, look after your own interests first and not the people’s, and this is what we’ve ended up with... there’s no future in more crises.”

Yet few – if any – in Northern Ireland would put money on there being no more crises, not least that the many thorny issues ahead include the controversy over Brexit and the unionist opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol, and the potential for a long, difficult summer as the marching season begins.

All will also have an eye to the next Assembly election, which must take place by May 2022 at the latest. Crucial for the DUP will be to stem the flow of voters away from the party, particularly to Alliance.

Can this be done? “Yes, possibly, under Jeffrey Donaldson,” says Jon Tonge, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool.

Donaldson, he believes, “puts the DUP back in the game. The darkest moment is before dawn – we might have had the darkest moment for the DUP”.