Northern Ireland

Analysis: Potential dilemma for DUP in Lagan Valley

The controversy surrounding Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has compounded the DUP’s difficulties in defending a key seat

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson celebrates after topping the poll in Lagan Valley. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Supporters celebrate as Sir Jeffrey Donaldson tops the poll in Lagan Valley in 2022's assembly election

Ahead of the May 2022 assembly election, the DUP faced a dilemma over its candidates in Lagan Valley. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had stated that he wanted to be Stormont first minister but in order to fulfil that role he needed to be an MLA.

For the then leader to be a candidate in the Stormont election, one of the two sitting MLAs – Edwin Poots and Paul Givan – had to stand aside.

In the end, Mr Poots transferred to South Belfast, Sir Jeffrey was duly elected but resigned from the seat within days to enable Emma Little-Pengelly, now deputy first minister, to be co-opted into the assembly.

Emma Little-Pengelly
Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly

It was a tactic that drew criticism from some quarters but it allowed the party to keep its preferred personnel in their allocated roles.

However, events last week have thrown up a fresh quandary for the DUP in Lagan Valley, on top of the challenges it faces elsewhere in the likes of East Belfast and North Down.

For the time being, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson remains the constituency’s MP. Despite immediately quitting as party leader after being charged with historical offences, which he strenuously denies, he did not resign his parliamentary seat. Notably, the sitting MP enjoys, or at least did enjoy, support in the constituency beyond his party’s base. He topped the poll in 2002, taking a quarter of the popular vote and finishing some 4,000 votes ahead of his nearest rival.

At present, nobody can force Sir Jeffrey to step down from Westminster and the DUP must be quietly hoping that this situation prevails, as there’s a possibility that his resignation would trigger a by-election. It is not a foregone conclusion that a by-election would take place, as the authorities may decide that its proximity to the forthcoming general election means it would be a unnecessarily expensive, as the successful candidate’s tenure would only last a matter of weeks.

It’s a given that the DUP would not want to defend the seat under and its 6,499 majority in the current circumstances but at some stage the party is going to have to bite the bullet and decide who’s best equipped to contest Lagan Valley.

Its options are limited. Emma Little-Pengelly, despite having no personal mandate, looks to have taken to the role of deputy first minister with relish. It’s unlikely she’d want to give up her relatively safe Stormont seat and a100K+ salary but arguably she stands the best chance of fending off the challenge from Alliance’s Sorcha Eastwood.

The obvious alternative is Paul Givan, a former first minister, who perhaps has less to lose by throwing his hat into the ring. Like Ms Little-Pengelly, were he not to win the seat, he would simply return to Stormont.

Edwin Poots appears content as MLA for South Belfast and newly-appointed assembly speaker, so the chances of him contesting the Westminster seat, which would would require the approval of the DUP party officers, appear remote.

With the three MLAs with ties to Lagan Valley out of the frame, the DUP could be facing a difficult task both in terms of candidate selection and defending the seat.

What was always going to be a difficult election before the controversy around Sir Jeffrey broke has now become a crucial test for the DUP, and one that is likely to have huge implications for the party in the years ahead.