Northern Ireland's Future Is Hanging In The Balance, Says DUP Leader Jeffrey Donaldson
Unionists cannot afford to lose the next year's election in Northern Ireland, the DUP’s new leader Jeffrey Donaldson has warned.
"Unionism needs to win that election," he told PoliticsHome in his Westminster office this week.
“We are entering a very critical period for the future of Northern Ireland."
Donaldson, the MP for Lagan Valley, became the party's third leader in the space of just a few weeks when he was chosen to replace Edwin Poots last month.
Poots, who succeeded the brutally ousted Arlene Foster, faced his own spectacular exit after just 21 days when he too was forced to stand down after he defied DUP colleagues to strike a deal with Sinn Fein and the UK government on Irish language legislation. The agreement prevented Stormont from collapsing, but cost Poots his job.
Donaldson, who intends to resign his House of Commons seat to become a member of Northern Ireland’s devolved legislative assembly – or MLA – and Northern Ireland's First Minister later this year, is tasked with steadying the DUP ship after a chaotic few months.
He is also under pressure to get supportive voters back on board ahead of the Assembly election in Northern Ireland next May.
The DUP, which until Boris Johnson’s Conservative landslide in 2019 held the balance of power in Westminster, has found itself languishing in recent local opinion polls, and seems to be shedding votes in all directions.
Sinn Fein is currently expected to be returned as Northern Ireland's largest party for the first time in the Assembly’s history next year, an outcome that would propel leader Michelle O'Neill to the office of First Minister.
An ex-DUP councillor said this week his former party ought to be "terrified” of the upcoming election, but even despite recent polling, Donaldson insists he is not scared.
"Yes, we have work to do," he admits, but he is clear that failure of the DUP to win that election would put the future of Northern Ireland in jeopardy, and something that he’s not willing to risk.
“Sinn Fein want to be the largest party in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and they would use that as a platform to push for a border poll," Donaldson continued.
"That would be very destabilising for Northern Ireland. It would create deep division and polarise our communities. We don’t need that right now. It's an election we must win."
Donaldson believes the DUP must become more "inclusive" and a "broad umbrella under which unionists can shelter," if the party is to get back on track.
He admits younger people in particular have drifted away and that the party must put forward a more "positive and progressive" vision for Northern Ireland to win them back.
“The younger generation who have grown up in a more peaceful Northern Ireland want the debate to move on from the past. They want to hear from their political leaders about the future."
But Donaldson's got a lot on his plate before Northern Ireland goes to the polls in May.
His most pressing task is the DUP's campaign to overhaul the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The post-Brexit treaty for the province, which has resulted in disruption to trade across the Irish Sea from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, "has to be dealt with" and "nothing short of restoration of our place in the UK internal market will suffice," he explained.
The government is expected to set out its latest thinking on the Northern Ireland Protocol to MPs in the next week or so before Parliament breaks up for the summer recess.
Donaldson has called for "meaningful reform" of the treaty, which the UK and European Union agreed as part of Brexit talks last year — but what does that actually mean?
The removal of all barriers to trade, he said.
“The technology already exists to monitor goods heading from Great Britain into the EU’s single market," he claimed. "We want to put in place arrangements to protect the EU single market. But you don't protect it by preventing the movement of goods within the UK internal market."
Donaldson does not say whether he trusts Boris Johnson, who insisted in 2019 the Northern Ireland Protocol would not mean checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea.
But he does issue a warning to the Prime Minister: "He does not want his legacy to be the break-up of the Union, and therefore, I believe he will take the action necessary to restore Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market."
Unionist and nationalist dispute over the Irish Language Act has proved to be a recurring roadblock for Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, and led to Stormont being out of action for three years after it collapsed in 2017.
Donaldson says the DUP would not support the UK government's plan to introduce Irish language legislation in Northern Ireland unless it meets its demands on the post-Brexit Protocol, indicating yet more turbulence awaits later in the year.
Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, has said the UK government will move to implement the legislation, which would give the Irish language equal status to English in Northern Ireland in October, if the Assembly hasn't done so by the end of September.
But Donaldson believes such decisive action from Westminster over the Irish Language Act, while leaving the Protocol intact could cause further ruptions.
“If the UK government moves on other elements of New Decade, New Approach, but fails to move on the most fundamental of issues, and that is Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom and its ability to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom, then that will be deeply destabilising for the political institutions," he said.
“I have become leader at a very critical time for unionism," he continued, reflecting on the scale of the challenges facing both his party and unionism in the coming months.
Donaldson is "increasingly worried" next week's 12 July loyalist marches will "spill over into violence", and that unionist communities feel vulnerable amid frustration with the Northern Ireland Protocol.
"The longer this runs on, the more potential there is for instability, and therefore, it is essential that the government moves as quickly as possible to address these issues," he said.
"I don’t want to see that. We've got to go about achieving our objectives by political and peaceful means alone."
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