Eliot Wilson

Donaldson’s fall is a challenge for the future of the DUP

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (Photo: Getty)

The news that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, had been arrested and charged with rape and other historical sexual offences, was a rare moment of genuine shock in politics. Politicians on all sides have been scrabbling to respond, to understand what has happened and what it means for the DUP and Northern Ireland as a whole.

Of Donaldson, little can be said until the conclusion of his criminal trial. He is scheduled to appear at Newry Magistrates’ Court on 24 April and says he will be strenuously contesting the charges against him. But it is clear that his involvement in politics is over: he resigned as leader of the DUP within hours of the story becoming public. Whatever the course of the police investigation, there is no way back for him now.

The political fall-out from Donaldson’s abrupt departure is enormous. It comes at a time of intense political fragility in Northern Ireland. There are signs of progress and increasing stability, but everything could yet be undone. A week ago, the DUP leader was riding high: he had risked a lot of political capital to do a deal with the government over restoring the Northern Ireland executive and it seemed to be paying off.

The devolved administration, with Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill as first minister and Donaldson’s close ally Emma Little-Pengelly as deputy first minister, was sworn in at the beginning of February. The text of the restoration deal had been enshrined in the UK government’s command paper ‘Safeguarding the Union’. There were promises of measures to reinforce Northern Ireland’s position in the UK internal market, to limit the intrusion of European Union law, and a sweetener in some £3.3 billion of additional funding for the Northern Ireland executive.

Strident and furious critics within the DUP and beyond raged – not without some justification – that the agreement did not remove the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland nor the customs barrier between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But two-thirds of DUP voters felt that Donaldson had done the right thing.

More importantly, Donaldson had been setting out his thoughts on the future of his party and unionism as a whole. In a speech in Newry in February, he said that people should ‘feel at home whether in their Britishness, their Irishness or something in between’, and that unionism had to promote its cause positively. The best way to do this, he proposed, was to make a success of the restored political institutions and create a more prosperous society for everyone in Northern Ireland.

‘Our objective must be to make Northern Ireland an economic powerhouse for the United Kingdom. This more than anything will secure our place in the Union for generations to come.’

Donaldson’s critics will undoubtedly see his fall as an opportunity to force a change of direction. Some want to repudiate the deal with Westminster and remain queasy about participating in an executive led by Sinn Féin, feeling that too many concessions have been made, too many principles compromised.

The party’s new interim leader, East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson, faces a number of impending challenges, not least the prospect of a general election. The DUP is trailing Sinn Féin by seven points in the opinion polls and is attracting the support of less than a quarter of the electorate. It won 30 per cent of the vote at the last election in 2019, and 36 per cent two years before that.

Essentially there are two options for Robinson and the party he temporarily steers. If he attempts to assuage the hardline critics he is choosing a course which is about negation: no to the restored assembly, no to the deal with Westminster, no to the opportunity to reshape and modernise Northern Ireland’s economy and show that the Union works for everyone.

The DUP was born out of rejectionism and reaction. It still has strong roots in social conservatism and evangelical Christianity, and most party members are active church-goers. But if it retreats into its comfort zone, with Catholics now more numerous than Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time, it will be picking a sectarian strategy that it simply cannot win. The end result will just be a countdown to a united Ireland.

The Donaldson model of accepting some unpleasant constitutional compromises, playing an active part in government and trying to make the case for the Union through tangible, material progress and stability cannot be lost with its principal architect. Gavin Robinson will discover over the next days and weeks that making and defending positive decisions is a difficult job as leader. But if he wants to save the DUP from extinction, that’s exactly what he needs to do.

Written by
Eliot Wilson

Eliot Wilson was a clerk in the House of Commons 2005-16, including on the Defence Committee. He is a member of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

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