Nigel Dodds a key player in finding way out of Brexit quagmire
DUP’s soft cop has become one of most powerful politicians in Westminster
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds (centre): ‘I don’t think anyone in unionism today fails to grasp the fact that we do need to work together.’ Photograph: Getty Images
Nigel Dodds has taken his fair share of knocks in his long political career. But the DUP’s Westminster leader now looks set to be a central player in determining if there is a way for the UK out of the Brexit quagmire.
In April 2013, he was carted off to hospital by ambulance when he collapsed at work at Westminster. Months later on the Twelfth of July he was knocked unconscious when struck by a brick hurled by a loyalist rioter during one of the regular parades disputes in north Belfast.
But the biggest blow that he, his MEP wife Diane and two surviving children suffered was in 1998 when his eight-year-old son Andrew, who suffered from spina bifida, died unexpectedly.
Two years earlier when Dodds was visiting Andrew at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, the IRA carried out a gun attack, wounding one of his police guards. The officer recovered from the injuries suffered in what Dodds described as a “grotesque” incident. The IRA said the attack was not against the politician, but rather the RUC.
“I have no way of knowing if that is true or not,” says Dodds in his north Belfast office ahead of a flight to London for another bout of very serious Brexit politics. “But certainly a lot of people are convinced that it was more than just the police officers the IRA was targeting.”
Andrew was a very bright wee boy. He had no inhibitions about going up to people and speaking to them. Ian Paisley used to think this was hilarious
The memories of Andrew are alive and strong for all the family. “He brought a lot of joy to people. He was very outgoing. Death was very sudden, it was a big shock to us . . . You never get over that, you live with it.”
Dodds started his political career as Ian Paisley’s chief aide in the European Parliament where the late DUP leader was an MEP.
“Andrew was a very bright wee boy. He had no inhibitions about going up to people and speaking to them. Ian Paisley used to think this was hilarious. He enjoyed a bit of joshing with him.”
Dodds says the juxtaposition of the 1996 attack with doctors and nurses caring for gravely ill children and parents visiting those children demonstrated the “absolute moral bankruptcy of the IRA and what they were about”.
But still that experience didn’t prevent him and the DUP going into the Northern Executive with Sinn Féin. He says he would be happy to do so again if the powersharing administration could be reinstated.
For years there appeared to be a natural succession chart framed on the wall of DUP headquarters: Ian Paisley, then Peter Robinson and then Dodds, but instead he surprisingly swerved away from the leadership when Robinson stood down in 2015, Arlene Foster taking over instead.
His argument remains that it did not make sense to be leader when he was over at Westminster as an MP rather than at Stormont as an Assembly member where most Northern Ireland business was done. Some wondered did those knocks convince him he did not need the stress of the leadership. Not so, says Dodds.
Regardless, he is under pressure again. He is the DUP leader in the House of Commons and in a real sense one of the most powerful politicians in Britain. The DUP holds the balance of power and how he and his fellow nine DUP MPs vote in next week’s Brexit vote or votes may decide if there is some resolution to the Brexit conundrum. There is a hint of movement. Over recent days he has been pivotal to an initiative portrayed as an olive branch from hardline Brexiteers to Theresa May. He was selected as one of eight lawyers for Jacob Rees Mogg’s hardline European Research Group (ERG) deputed to propose some compromise that could reconcile the bitterly conflicting positions of Leavers and Remainers.
That work continues apace and probably will run to the eleventh hour and maybe a bit beyond as well. That’s about finding a solution that ensures no hard border on the island of Ireland and doesn’t dilute, as unionists claim is inherent in the backstop, Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the United Kingdom.
How to square that circle has baffled great political and legal minds. “There is definitely a way through this. Whether there are people in Brussels and Dublin who are prepared to make changes remains to be seen,” says Dodds.
He argues that Michel Barnier and Leo Varadkar would need to be in the mood for accommodation as well, and reflects on how ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum the then British prime minister David Cameron was sent home from Brussels with his tail between his legs when he sought concessions to try to carry the Remain case.
“If history were to repeat itself I think Europe might be much more favourably disposed to a David Cameron-like ask,” he says.
Politics is either in your blood or it is not
Dodds was born in 1958 in the same Waterside General Hospital in Derry as another DUP MP Gregory Campbell – “I’m not sure what you can draw from that,” he offers. His late father Joe – who was a DUP councillor in Fermanagh – was a customs officer. They then moved to Enniskillen where Dodds spent most of his boyhood, attending Portora Royal School. He went to Cambridge in 1977 to study law, emerging with a first. Initially, Cambridge was a shock. “I came from Fermanagh, never having been out of Northern Ireland much, into this very grand institution, feeling very much an inferiority complex as very many people form Northern Ireland do coming to these sorts of places.
“But I very soon realised that actually we were as good as anyone else there. I enjoyed the stimulus, the debates, the political activity, the legal challenge – it was like opening up a whole new world to me. I enjoyed it immensely.”
He also enjoyed the break from the Troubles. He returned, however, for a year to Queen’s to prepare for what probably would have been a lucrative life at the bar. It was there he met his wife Diana who was studying history, and as an MEP should shortly be out of a job.
His mother Doreen still occasionally muses, as does he, what life would have been like if he had taken the legal rather than the political path. “I got the offer to work with Ian in the European Parliament which was a fabulous opportunity. Once I took that route it meant the law took second place. Politics is either in your blood or it is not.”
Chatting to Dodds you don’t get the same lively and often incendiary quotes you can readily elicit from Sammy Wilson. Dodds is the soft cop in this project. Equally he has survived in the brutal sectarian cockpit of North Belfast where against Sinn Féin encroachment he has held his House of Commons seat since 2001. So, he can fight dirty. But generally he is considered and measured in his comments.
He allows, up to a point, that the DUP’s staunch line on Brexit has helped give rise to the civic nationalist movement.
In the past year former DUP leader Peter Robinson made a couple of key speeches advising unionists to be mindful of demographic changes and how it was vital for them to achieve rapprochement with nationalism.
“Unionists would be wise not to disregard what he is saying,” agrees Dodds. But notwithstanding the tumult of the UK quitting the EU he believes the position is retrievable once Brexit is resolved – if that is possible. And he believes too that unionism, so to speak, “gets it” – that it is not unattuned to the shifting political zeitgeist.
“I don’t think anyone in unionism today fails to grasp the fact that we do need to work together, that we need to have a powersharing government, that we need to have a good relationship North and South, and we need to have a situation where people are comfortable with Northern Ireland and the union.
“Brexit has changed some of the dynamic but I am reasonably optimistic that once we work through our period of uncertainty and the worst of the fears that are out there on all sides, that we can begin to get that consensus in Northern Ireland.”
Dodds is 60 now. He understands, based on experience, that as you get older you must be mindful of the pressures and the problems they can cause – you have to look after your health. “But I feel fine,” he says. “There are a lot of challenges that I have to see through. I will carry on for a while yet. There is a lot of work to be done still and I am privileged to be part of that.”