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A route exists for DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson to go back into the NI Assembly

When it comes to political strategy, the worst outcome is where every loss is permanent and every victory pyrrhic

The DUP’s decision to form a panel — which includes former leaders Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster — to collate evidence and advice about the Windsor Framework is a typical tactic by the party. What it usually means is that the key leadership players are amassing inside and outside evidence in favour of the more difficult choice before them: in this case, accepting it and rebooting the Assembly and Executive.

If that is the choice it makes then Jeffrey Donaldson knows it will mean facing down internal opponents, including some of the big beasts of his Westminster parliamentary party. He knows what that’s like, of course, because he used to be one of the big beasts of the Ulster Unionist Party, which gave David Trimble a series of headaches. But he also knows that Trimble faced him and the others down and went on to win vote after vote with the party officers, executive and governing council.

But he also has to face external opponents, who seem to be in a stronger position than those facing Trimble. The loyalist paramilitary groups — without whose endorsement the Belfast Agreement would not have been nudged over the line— have already withdrawn support for the 1998 deal, are vehemently opposed to the Northern Ireland protocol and, at this point, unlikely to support the Windsor Framework. A new generation of anti-protocol, anti-Belfast Agreement loyalism (many of them born just before or after 1998) has also emerged in the past five years and they will be organising rallies and protests against the framework. The Orange Order remains sceptical.

An Assembly election isn’t actually necessary if the DUP returns, meaning that the campaign would be focused on the easier-to-contain council elections

But Donaldson’s biggest problem is the electoral challenge he faces from Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice party. Allister, who left the DUP in 2007, when it agreed a powersharing deal with Sinn Féin, has successfully tapped into the feelings of abandonment and betrayal felt by many across unionism and loyalism. At the Assembly election last May, he attracted an extra 40,000 votes (Mostly from the DUP) and could do well at the local council elections due this May.


There is a route back into the Assembly for Donaldson. Of the 37 unionist MLAs I think it’s likely he could get the support of about 33 if the DUP decided to nominate a deputy first minister. But that also means a few defections from his Assembly team, maybe even from his parliamentary team and a fairly brutal election campaign in May. An Assembly election isn’t actually necessary if the DUP returns, meaning that the campaign would be focused on the easier-to-contain council elections.

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But if he chooses to take that route it will require courage and a relentlessly hard sell. And that means setting out the difference between authentic mammon and bogus gods. Any hint of compromise or pragmatism will bring the accusation that he is prepared to accept the subjugation (a new and favourite word in the lexicon of pro-Brexit unionism) of the union. Yet the fact of the matter is that if the union is truly being subjugated then the source of the subjugation is the sovereign parliament of the United Kingdom. So what does that say about the nature of the relationship between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, particularly when the problem of subjugation has been an issue for unionism since at least 1972?

Survival — which is what it’s really about now for Ulster unionism — always depends on pragmatism: a willingness to adapt to new circumstances. It’s what unionism had to do in 1912, 1921, 1972, 1985 and 1993. It’s what it must do now. Flying in the face of a sovereign parliament is one thing, but there are always consequences. Not least of which is what you do next. If Donaldson decides to run with the framework then he needs to challenge his opponents on what follows if it is rejected.

I have no doubt that Donaldson favours the survival of devolution, even with its manifest faults

He also needs to challenge them on what happens if devolution collapses entirely (an outcome some of them are actively seeking). The notion that there will be a unionist-benign form of direct rule is a fatuous one. Neither the Irish Government nor nationalism in Northern Ireland will be sidelined or ignored in those circumstances. That said, he also has to persuade unionists that the assembly — which has a long history of stop-start crises and failing to rise to the challenges of coherent, consensual governance — is actually worth preserving. Let’s face it, every previous rescue deal has been followed by another breakdown: so maybe it’s a pattern of behaviour that cannot be changed.

I have no doubt that Donaldson favours the survival of devolution, even with its manifest faults. Cynics will ask why bother to save something which is likely to reach another crisis point within months: is it just because too many parties and governments still believe that the Belfast Agreement remains “too big, too important to fail”? I think it’s deeper than that. If we reach the point at which it is acknowledged that no form of devolution can work in Northern Ireland then it raises much more difficult questions about what happens next. And nobody has a clue.

That’s why unionism has to be careful about any strategy which leads to the final collapse. That’s why Donaldson — and his opponents, too — must examine every key decision taken by unionism since March 1972 and measure their strategy against the consequences. The worst place to find yourself is somewhere where every loss is permanent and every victory pyrrhic. If the DUP opt for a reasonably soft yes and a few tentative steps into the Assembly and Executive — which I think it will — then it must be ruthlessly honest about why it has made that call.

Remind unionism too that Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom does not just depend on assorted Acts of parliament. It depends on having a majority when a Border poll comes: a majority is more likely if unionism seems calm rather than serially spooked.

  • Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast. He was formerly director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party