Donaldson controversy unlikely to destabilise freshly-restored Stormont

Commentators suggest power-sharing is safe but that differences of opinion are likely to emerge within the DUP

First Minister Michelle O’Neill (left) and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly
First Minister Michelle O’Neill (left) and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY/PA (Liam McBurney/PA)

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s shock resignation won’t derail power-sharing but the controversy could trigger upheaval inside the DUP, a leading commentator has said.

The Lagan Valley MP resigned on Friday soon after it emerged that he was facing historic allegations.

It was also reported that Sir Jeffrey had been suspended from the Orange Order.

An emergency meeting of party officers called in response to the crisis unanimously agreed to appoint East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson as interim DUP leader.

Gavin Robinson has been appointed interim DUP leader
DUP interim leader Gavin Robinson. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY/PA

Sir Jeffrey’s resignation as party leader comes just weeks after he secured the support of DUP elected representatives in a decisive vote that led to the restoration of the Stormont institutions.

There is a widespread expectation that the former DUP leader will also resign his Westminster seat, potentially triggering a by-election. However, given its proximity to a forthcoming general election, which must occur by January next year, the authorities may decide not to hold a by-election.

There has been vocal opposition to the deal in recent weeks from DUP stalwarts Lord Nigel Dodds and Sammy Wilson, however, the two veterans were careful not to target their former party leader in their criticism.

But while it has been speculated that the latest developments could destabilise the freshly-restored power-sharing institutions, two Irish News columnists believe the current controversy will have no lasting impact on Stormont’s sustainability.

However, Brian Feeney suggested that the DUP could face internal problems, with Gavin Robinson’s hopes of becoming leader potentially jeopardised.

“The DUP officer board acted very quickly appointing Gavin Robinson interim leader to try to forestall any heave by the opponents in the party of restoring the executive,” he said.

“Judging by the flurries on social media that hasn’t satisfied those who are unhappy with the deal Donaldson made – or what they call the Donaldson Deal.”

He said divisions within the party would likely be exposed when the leadership contest is run.

“Robinson still has to be elected and ratified by the party executive which will be an opportunity to express disapproval,” Mr Feeney said.

“It may be more than a coincidence that this story broke over the Easter recess when there’s less chance of party dissidents conspiring.”

Slugger O’Toole deputy editor David McCann said the impact from Sir Jeffrey’s resignation on the executive would be “limited”.

“It is in neither the DUP or Sinn Féin’s interest for instability to be piled on top of instability,” he said.

“The real impact will come if a new DUP leader decides to reshuffle ministers and committee chairs, that could mean a new deputy first minister at some stage.”