Donaldson the frontrunner to take over DUP leadership

Although socially conservative, he is regarded as a moderate in the DUP

Jeffrey Donaldson: he cut his political teeth as an election agent for Enoch Powell during the 1980s. Photograph:  Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Jeffrey Donaldson: he cut his political teeth as an election agent for Enoch Powell during the 1980s. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

 

Jeffrey Donaldson, who has emerged as frontrunner to take over the DUP leadership, cut his political teeth as an election agent for Enoch Powell during the 1980s.

Born in the fishing village of Kilkeel in Co Down, the 58-year-old became “politically aware” at an early age, in part because of the IRA murder of his cousin Samuel Donaldson, one of the first policemen killed in the Troubles in 1970.

Joining the Ulster Unionist Party – as well as the Orange Order – the eldest of eight children swiftly rose through the ranks, getting elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1985.

At the age of 22, he was the youngest member of the short-lived devolved government which was then boycotted by nationalists. At the same time he was personal assistant to the then UUP leader Jim Molyneaux.

In 1997 he successfully ran for the Westminster elections, being elected MP for Lagan Valley, succeeding Molyneaux.

It is a seat he has comfortably held on to ever since, but not for the same party.

Having fallen out with the then UUP leader David Trimble during the Belfast Agreement negotiations over police reforms and IRA decommissioning, he led a dramatic walkout from the peace talks.

The enmity never healed, and his defection – along with Arlene Foster – six years later to the Democratic Unionist Party was a defining moment for political unionism which helped broaden the support base of Ian Paisley’s firebrand fundamentalist party.

Although socially conservative – he was opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage – he is regarded as a moderate in the DUP.

Donaldson was narrowly defeated in last month’s leadership contest by since-resigned Edwin Poots.

During the last campaign Donaldson vowed to quit Westminster to return to the Assembly and take up the role of First Minister. One possibility is that he could seek to replace Foster as the MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone when she steps down, or he could wait until the next Assembly election, in which case he may appoint a caretaker First Minister.