Elevation of Donaldson buys time for fractious DUP

Feeling within the party, according to one source, is that the healing process has begun

The incoming DUP leader Sir Jeffery Donaldson has called on the British government and EU to "step up and recognise the flaws of the Protocol." Video: DUP/ Reuters

 

Incoming DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson wasted no time in getting stuck into his to-do list on Tuesday.

Forwarded an image of the weather-beaten door at DUP headquarters in east Belfast with the caption “Priorities for @J_Donaldson_MP: 1. VARNISH YOUR DOOR”, responded Donaldson: “Door definitely on list. I am told it’s in hand. Hope to open many other doors in times ahead for benefit of all in Northern Ireland. ”

On this, Donaldson proved a man of his word, with pictures of the gleaming door duly circulated on social media; yet as he prepares to take office, he will be well aware that the other items in his in tray will not be as easy to deal with.

These include the Northern Ireland protocol – the “number one issue facing our country”, according to Donaldson – as well as the need to unite the DUP after the acrimonious internal battles of the last two months and to, as the party chairman Lord Morrow put it, take on the challenges of “rebuilding and reconnecting” ahead of a crucial Assembly election.

On Tuesday the feeling within the party, according to one DUP source, was that healing had begun; “rejuvenated” was the verb chosen to sum up the mood.

Yet there are also broader questions – over the future identity and direction of the DUP and unionism in general, as well as over powersharing and the stability of the North’s institutions – particularly as Northern Ireland heads into a potentially turbulent marching season and with challenges ahead over issues such as the introduction of Irish language legislation from Westminster.

In the shorter term, Donaldson also has a decision to make about how and when he will take up the position of First Minister, a move that will involve quitting the Commons – triggering a byelection in Lagan Valley – and returning to Northern Ireland as an MLA.

Certainly he brings a wealth of experience; the DUP’s longest-serving MP. He was first elected in 1997 – albeit for the UUP – and is his party’s leader at Westminster. Donaldson has also been involved in high-level negotiations since the early 1990s.

‘Constructive’ politician

On the protocol he is equally as opposed as his predecessor, Edwin Poots, and they share a similar background. Donaldson’s cousin, Samuel Donaldson, was the first member of the RUC to be killed by the IRA during the Troubles which made him “politically aware” from a young age.

Donaldson joined the UDR and the Orange Order – he is a former assistant grand master – and the Young Unionists. One of his earliest roles was as Enoch Powell’s constituency agent.

Yet he is known as someone willing to keep channels of communication open. Dublin sources described him as a “constructive” politician and said that as a negotiator he brings to the table a “spirit of goodwill” and is a “problem solver” who “tries to do business in a respectful way”.

Donaldson will need all these qualities if he is to successfully negotiate the potential pitfalls ahead; not least, how to mollify hardliners while not alienating the more moderate, all while maintaining the compromise necessary to keep the Assembly up and running.

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