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Newton Emerson: Poots’s big mistake was to move too fast

Donaldson can carve himself three months to have a firm conversation with his party

It only makes sense in relative terms to talk of “liberal” and “conservative” factions of the DUP. It might seem to make no sense after the ousting of conservative leader Edwin Poots, apparently for being too liberal on Irish language legislation and sharing power with Sinn Féin.

So instead of liberal versus conservative, think of the DUP’s divide as fast versus slow. Poots was caught in a cycle of weakening authority driving him to reckless haste.

This came to a head last Thursday when leadership rival Jeffrey Donaldson signed a letter, then turned up uninvited to a Stormont meeting to confront Poots over rushing to nominate Paul Givan as first minister.

Objections raised in the letter and at the meeting were about speed, not direction.


Why had Poots not briefed the party about talks the night before with Sinn Féin and the British government?

Why was Givan being nominated four days before the deadline for a Stormont collapse, wasting opportunities for brinkmanship?

Nobody in the DUP wants to collapse devolution over language legislation they have already agreed to in last year’s New Decade, New Approach deal. It would trigger an election in which the party would be crucified.

What DUP members wanted was reassurance Poots was following a plan to get through the language controversy, against the backdrop of their much larger protocol crisis. Members were angry about Westminster passing the legislation at Sinn Féin’s behest, but also suspicious Poots found it convenient to have responsibility taken off his hands. If the DUP leader had spent time explaining the advantages of passing the buck to London, that might have been accepted. Instead, he ran out of Thursday’s meeting in what looked like a panic to nominate Givan and pin down whatever backroom deal had been done.

Take it slowly

Now that Poots has resigned, Donaldson is his presumed successor. Predictions of his approach tend to be made in liberal versus conservative terms but Donaldson’s key change must simply be to slow down. He has numerous opportunities to do so.

The British government has pledged to pass the language legislation in October if Stormont has not commenced it by September. That gives Donaldson three months as leader to have a firm conversation with his party, with a Westminster “backstop” in place.

On the protocol, the EU is considering another three-month extension to the grace period for food, heading off the “sausage war” deadline to the end of September. There are reportedly hopes of a veterinary equivalence or alignment deal by July, obviating most sea border checks.

It appears this would be too late to placate loyalism. The Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) issued a statement on Friday saying the protocol must be “removed”, Westminster must not legislate for Sinn Féin demands and if the new DUP leader cannot deliver this they must “suspend the normal operation of devolution”.

There is poor understanding of the reality that the LCC, representing the main loyalist paramilitary groups, is in a cycle of weakening authority and increasing belligerence. Until last month it was merely calling for the protocol to be “amended”, a more liberal position than any unionist party. The LCC has been organising most of the peaceful protests against the protocol as an alternative to the rioting that broke out in April. However, it is fearful of losing its grip over the summer as younger, hotter heads muscle in.

Thumb twiddling

Donaldson will have to engage with loyalists on the protocol. One model for this was provided by former DUP leader Peter Robinson, who dealt with a 2014 crisis over the marching season by inviting every unionist and loyalist to participate in a forum and plan an ominous-sounding “graduated response”. By the time everyone realised they were twiddling their thumbs in a talking shop, it was September and the nights were drawing in.

Naturally, Donaldson will have to devise his own version of this trick. He has demonstrated the requisite cunning: during the DUP leadership contest last month, Donaldson took a harder line than Poots on the protocol and collapsing Stormont. This was the liberal pacing himself to bring conservatives along.

Circumstances have provided one further gift to the next DUP leader.

Although Givan’s position is untenable and party officers have told him he will have to step down, this need not cause another one-week countdown to collapse and a repeat of last week’s crisis horse-trading.

The Stormont term has only three weeks to run, after which the Assembly and Executive are effectively on holiday until September. A Bill currently passing through Westminster enacting New Decade, New Approach reforms should be law by mid-July. It extends the one-week period to a Stormont collapse to at least six weeks, extendable up to six months. So Donaldson can address the first minister issue at his leisure. Although other Executive parties have pleaded with the DUP to leave Givan in place to avoid further disruption, Sinn Féin has indicated it will not obstruct a new appointment.

Stalling and waiting for events to move on may be an uninspiring pitch for a leadership campaign but it is a venerable political strategy – and the DUP’s only realistic option.