If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was last month narrowly pipped to the post in the DUP‘s leadership election by Edwin Poots, who lasted a mere 21 days in the top job.
But there was no chance of him losing this race because he was the only one in it. The Lagan Valley MP was on Tuesday crowned new party king, with a formal signing-in ceremony expected to take place over the weekend.
He has often spoken about the effect the Troubles had on his early life, following the IRA murder of his cousin, Samuel Donaldson, an RUC constable.
At 16, Sir Jeffrey, a proud Christian, followed his family’s tradition by joining the Orange Order, later signing up to the Ulster Defence Regiment.
He was first elected to office in 1985 as UUP MLA at Stormont, before a row with its former leader David Trimble over the Good Friday peace deal eventually resulted in his defection to the DUP, along with Arlene Foster, in 2004.
With its historical stances on social issues such as gay marriage and women’s reproductive rights, it might seem like an oxymoron to describe a DUP politician as moderate, but that’s how Sir Jeffrey is viewed within the party, and his arrival could help stem its haemorrhaging of more liberal voters to the Ulster Unionists and cross-community Alliance Party, following a shift to the right in the wake of Arlene Foster’s ousting from the leadership.
“We need to restore confidence and faith in our party and to work with other unionists of a like mind to broaden the appeal of unionism and secure the Union for the future,” Sir Jeffrey said in a statement when officially announcing his leadership bid earlier this week.
In ideological terms the leadership of Sir Jeffrey, who will need to give up his seat as an MP and become an MLA to take up the first minister role, is being viewed as a slight departure from that of his predecessor; a moderniser who can broaden the church, so to speak. But the major obstacle before him remains the same: opposition to Brexit’s Northern Ireland protocol.
However, it was notable that, in his statement, the party’s leader at Westminster did not explicitly state that he was prepared to bring down the devolved institutions at Stormont over the issue, a threat repeatedly touted by backers of Poots.
But he has warned Boris Johnson that failure to act on the Irish Sea border “will undoubtedly have consequences for the stability of our political institutions and the prosperity of our economy.”
Also missing from the statement was any reference to the Irish language act, which ultimately brought down Poots.
But with DUP MLAs, MPs and party members incandescent at what they see as a capitulation to nationalist demands on language – backed by a verbal commitment by Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis to introduce legislation at Stormont – he will surely have to face down the issue sooner rather than later.
But with assembly elections coming up in May next year, what is likely most pressing in the minds of Sir Jeffrey and other DUP politicians is the party’s survival.
A poll in May showed support for the party had plunged to 16 per cent, down from 19 per cent at the beginning of the year.
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