Donaldson hopes for autumn return to Stormont as first minister

DUP leader says he is planning a meeting with Taoiseach within next few weeks

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson: “Ideally I’d like to get back to Stormont as soon as I can, and I am hopeful that a vacancy can arise.” Photograph: James Forde

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson: “Ideally I’d like to get back to Stormont as soon as I can, and I am hopeful that a vacancy can arise.” Photograph: James Forde

 

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Jeffrey Donaldson is hoping to take over as the North’s first minister as early as the autumn.

The Lagan Valley MP has suggested a series of shifts in his Stormont team could pave the way for his early return from Westminster after almost a quarter of a century.

While he was happy to lead the party from London over the coming weeks and months, he said a “suitable vacancy” may open up before the end of the year which could see him co-opted as an MLA.

“I’m hoping for the opportunity in the autumn to be able to return to Stormont,” he told The Irish Times.

Mr Donaldson, who took over the party leadership in June just weeks after losing a bruising contest for the post to Edwin Poots, has made it clear he wants to lead the DUP as first minister.

One possible route for him back from Westminster was to take over former DUP leader Arlene Foster’s seat in Fermanagh South Tyrone.

But Mr Donaldson has ruled out that constituency for himself. “It wouldn’t be my intention to step into that role,” he said.

However, he said he believed Ms Foster would still vacate that seat in the autumn.

The revelation suggests the possibility of a number of changes among his 28 MLAs to allow for him to take the top Stormont role alongside Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, Deputy First Minister, before next year’s Assembly elections.

Political pact

It could also mean an early byelection for his Lagan Valley seat, where Alliance has been closing in on the DUP’s lead in the constituency. The UUP has also vowed it would not enter any political pact but would run for the seat, opening the possibility of splitting the unionist vote.

The current First Minister, Paul Givan, a close ally of Stormont Minister for Agriculture Mr Poots, is an MLA for Lagan Valley.

“There hasn’t been a vacancy that has arisen yet in our Assembly team,” Mr Donaldson said.

“It is possible that it might still happen in the autumn.

“Ideally I’d like to get back to Stormont as soon as I can, and I am hopeful that a vacancy can arise. But if not then, I will stand as a candidate and lead the team in the Assembly elections.”

Mr Donaldson has appointed former DUP leader and ex-first minister Peter Robinson to head an internal review of the party’s organisational structures, which he said would deliver “complete reform”.

As part of a number of pledges during his leadership contest, Mr Donaldson is starting a “listening tour” across the North’s 18 constituencies this week.

Visits have already been lined up for East Belfast, North Belfast, Foyle and East Derry.

Troubles amnesty

On British government proposals for a de facto amnesty for all Troubles-related killings, Mr Donaldson said there was cross-party consensus against the controversial plans.

“It is not the way forward,” he said. “We are talking to the UK government about the need for access to justice as well as information recovery for victims.

“We are clear you cannot substitute justice with information recovery. It is essential that victims still have access to justice.”

Mr Donaldson also said he was planning a meeting with Taoiseach Micheál Martin within the coming weeks.

His “message to the Irish government will be very clear”, he said, that unless there is the removal of the so-called Irish Sea border – under the post-Brexit arrangements agreed in the Northern Ireland protocol – then North/South relations would be harmed.

“The protocol is not only creating economic instability, but political instability in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“It is the case that if the protocol continues to harm our relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom, then it will also have an impact on our relationship with Dublin, given the three sets of relationships covered by the Belfast Agreement are interdependent and interlocking.

“If you harm one relationship, you harm all of them.

“As far as North/South relations are concerned, if the Irish insist on implementing the protocol and continue to harm our relationship with Great Britain , then it will not be business as usual on a North/South basis.”