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Analysis: Sir Jeffrey's method may be less abrasive but the message remains the same

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson

THERE was never any real expectation that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson would succeed in putting clear blue water between himself and his predecessors.

The DUP is a party founded on conservatism and continuity – reinventing and repositioning itself goes against its nature. And so there were no surprises when the freshly-crowned leader set out his stall yesterday.

Naturally, the tone was more Jeffrey than Arlene or Edwin but beyond presentation there isn’t much discernible difference with what has come previously. The method may be less abrasive but the message is the same.

That said, you get a greater sense that, when the new leader says he wants a more inclusive unionism, he actually means it.

It’s no secret that political unionism is in crisis and the DUP’s turmoil of recent weeks has in many ways been a manifestation of that.

Countless polls show majority support for the union, yet votes cast for the DUP, Ulster Unionists and TUV don’t reflect this.

Sir Jeffrey identified “considerable room for expansion” but his difficulty is wooing Alliance supporters and the demographic often referred to as ‘garden centre unionists’, while keeping his party’s fundamentalists on board.

There may be a desire to unite the DUP in the aftermath of a divisive few weeks but equally some in the party may still harbour notions of revenge over the manner in which Edwin Poots was ousted.

While they may not necessarily be seeking to overthrow Sir Jeffrey, they could make his efforts at outreach difficult. However, the new leader signalled yesterday that in this regard he would follow the example of Arlene Foster, which to most nationalists would appear to be setting the bar low.

By talking about “policies for the few not the many”, the new DUP leader appeared to imply that the days when religious beliefs on LGBTQ issues and other social matters dictated the party’s direction were numbered.

Yet it’s worth remembering that Mrs Foster’s sudden demise is thought to have been triggered by her abstention from an assembly vote on banning gay conversion therapy – a practice that would appear to have widespread support among DUP MLAs.

Sir Jeffrey also managed to make a hames of his embryonic efforts to unite unionism by "misrepresenting" a forthcoming meeting with his UUP counterpart Doug Beattie, according to sources in the UUP.

Then, of course, there’s the protocol – the post-Brexit trade checks that months' of unionist scaremongering have hyped into a constitutional threat, while all the time failing to recognise that instability and a lack of political progress pose the greatest threat to the union.

Notably, Sir Jeffrey said he wanted to abolish the “Irish Sea border”, rather than the protocol. Already the semantic landing pad is being prepared for what could turn out to be the greatest climbdown yet from the DUP.

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