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The DUP can appoint a new leader, but it can’t change how voters associate the party with Jeffrey Donaldson

There is no precedent for this sort of crisis in Northern Ireland politics. The long-term fallout will be the DUP’s biggest challenge

There is, usually, a game plan for a political crisis. But there wasn’t one for the crisis which engulfed the DUP in the early hours of Good Friday, when the first calls and texts began to circulate about Jeffrey Donaldson. There is no precedent for this particular sort of crisis in Northern Ireland politics, although, like all local crises, the impact and outworkings could lead to yet another teetering moment for an Assembly and Executive which was rebooted just two months ago.

It was rebooted after Donaldson took personal control, turned on his internal and external opponents and, albeit with opposition from some very influential members of his parliamentary team, pushed through the deal which paved the way for Sinn Féin and the DUP to take the roles of First and Deputy First Minister. Now, some of those internal and external opponents are claiming that his rush to push through the deal is somehow linked to the charges just levelled against him.

There had been a growing feeling since early February that the Assembly and deal had bedded in well enough for the assumption to be made that the political process was back on solid ground. Donaldson’s anti-deal opponents outside his party hadn’t been able to generate the sort of momentum required to do any damage, and his internal critics had failed to rally around one key figure in the party to do the sort of wreckage to his leadership that he had done to David Trimble between 1998-2003.

All bets are off now. Gavin Robinson, deputy leader of the party, has been appointed interim leader, but the rules require a leadership election fairly quickly. This is a moment the anti-deal critics hadn’t expected, and it comes at a time when even MLAs and party officers who backed the deal two months ago are beginning to wonder if the promises to “strengthen, secure and safeguard” the GB/UK relationship will, in fact, amount to a hill of beans.

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There is a moment coming for one of those critics to strike and kick-start a leadership contest: a contest which would reopen the battle between the party’s pro-deal and anti-deal factions. It can’t be assumed that Robinson will throw his hat into the ring, but I can’t, for the life of me, think of another obvious pro-deal candidate.

Emma Little-Pengelly, who has settled well into the role of Deputy First Minister, might be an option, not least because it would mean the party leader would actually be an MLA again. But she doesn’t have an election mandate, having been gifted her seat by Donaldson (who won the Lagan Valley seat in 2022 and then opted to remain an MP) and then gifted the Deputy First Minister role by him as well. That rise through the ranks has rankled with longer serving members of the party.

The critics also have a problem. Who would their champion be? The most likely contenders would be from the MPs Carla Lockhart, Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley jnr. Wilson has already said he thinks Robinson should lead the party into the coming general election – just months away. Paisley is not as popular as he likes to pretend, and Lockhart has never given the impression of being interested in the leadership.

There’s another factor at play, too. The party already had potential problems in the coming election. The Traditional Unionist Voice, its main anti-deal rival, has just agreed an election pact with Nigel Farage’s Reform UK, and although it’s unlikely to win any seats, its intervention could cost the DUP two or three seats. Its other rival, the pro-deal Ulster Unionist Party, is also sounding more upbeat than it has for months and fancies its chances in a couple of seats.

Both sides of the DUP will probably agree that the priority in the next few months is keeping the party together and hanging on to every seat it has; something that will not be possible if it embarks on a civil war. There’s also an acknowledgment across the party that “using” the Donaldson crisis to begin a new battle and provoke new political instability wouldn’t play well with most of its own base at this point – certainly not in the teeth of an already difficult election.

Right now the DUP leadership will be moving heaven and earth to prevent a divisive leadership election. I think they will be successful. That still leaves the problem to follow if Donaldson were to resigne as an MP – which I think is likely. And for the same reasons it doesn’t want a divisive leadership election, it doesn’t want a parliamentary byelection, which would, again, be a battle between anti-deal unionism and pro-deal unionism, and the likely loss of a seat which has been a jewel in unionism’s electoral crown for a century. Westminster has the power to put such a byelection on the long finger and, in return for continuing stability, it would likely do so.

However, the biggest challenge for the DUP remains the long-term fallout from the Donaldson crisis – especially if any court case and accompanying evidence runs for months. There is no precedent for this and therefore no evidence one way or the other of how the DUP base will react. The party can, I think, control the leadership and byelection decisions. What it cannot control is the linkage the electorate now makes between Donaldson himself and the party he led.

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