The Irish Times view on Jeffrey Donaldson’s resignation: a shock to the political system

It is difficult to see how such a cataclysmic event would not lead to political aftershocks

Four days on from Jeffrey Donaldson’s abrupt resignation from the leadership of the DUP, the shock waves caused by the circumstances of his departure continue to reverberate. That explains in part the muted reaction from nearly all sides of Northern politics, although legal sensitivities are also a factor.

The PSNI issued two statements over the bank holiday weekend, one warning against the danger of public speculation about a live investigation and the other clarifying the timeline leading up to last week’s events.

Donaldson faces historical sexual allegations. His resignation letter reportedly indicated that he will strenuously contest these.

The DUP and Sinn Féin have both denied that the stability of the North’s institutions has been put at risk. But it is difficult to see how such a cataclysmic event would not lead to political aftershocks. Donaldson leaves behind a party that remains deeply divided. Opposition to his decision to return to the Executive still runs deep among many party members. They believe the concessions he claimed to have secured to arrangements for the movement of goods between the North and Great Britain do not go nearly far enough. At some point they will surely seek an opportunity to strike.

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They may see a point of vulnerability in Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly, a Donaldson protegee who was co-opted to the Lagan Valley seat he won but chose not to take up after the last Assembly election, and who Donaldson then elevated to her current position. Or they may put forward a candidate against interim leader Gavin Robinson, another Donaldson ally. Indeed, it is still not clear whether Robinson intends to run for the permanent leadership. All of this could spell trouble for the recently revived Executive.

The dissidents, however, do not have a clear and plausible candidate of their own. And it is possible that with a UK general election fast approaching, a more pragmatic approach will win out. The DUP faces serious challenges to a number of its seats, including in Lagan Valley and in Robinson’s constituency of Belfast East. An internal civil war would be the worst possible way to prepare for that contest.

This entirely unforeseen development comes at a highly delicate moment for all the parties in Northern Ireland, as well as for the governments in Dublin and London, who would have been heartened by the apparently successful bedding in of the Executive over the last eight weeks. Both have expressed their support for Robinson’s interim leadership and called for continuity.

While the psychological impact on unionism in general and the DUP in particular is hard to predict in the longer term, it is to be hoped that it will not lead to a derailment of the still delicate political process.

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