Sir Jeffrey Donaldson concedes 'there isn't a path' back to Stormont ahead of next year's election
SIR JEFFREY Donaldson has said he hopes to be back in assembly "by the end of the year" but the newly-crowned DUP leader has conceded that there is no obvious route for his return to Stormont.
The Lagan Valley MP admitted there currently "isn't a path" to him becoming an MLA, with any effort to force a colleague to resign likely to cause further rancour in an already deeply divided party.
Throughout the recent leadership contest and since succeeding Edwin Poots as DUP leader last month, Sir Jeffrey has made it clear that he wants to lead the party from Stormont and to be first minister.
He yesterday announced his first reshuffle, moving Paul Frew out of the Department of the Economy but leaving Paul Givan as first minister, and Edwin Poots and Michelle McIlveen with the agriculture and education portfolios, respectively.
In addition to there being no obvious vacancy at Stormont, the DUP leader's resignation from Westminster in order to take up any assembly role would trigger a by-election in Lagan Valley.
Sir Jeffrey has held the seat since 1997, when he was first elected to Westminster as an Ulster Unionist.
In the 2017 general election, he secured a majority of 19,229, his largest ever.
But little over two years later, the DUP MP's winning margin was cut to 6,499, with Alliance candidate Sorcha Eastwood enjoying a surge in support.
The two sitting MLAs in Lagan Valley are Mr Poots and Mr Givan, who were both central to the ousting of Arlene Foster and in the rival camp to Sir Jeffrey in the subsequent leadership contest, the first in the DUP's 50-year history.
It is unlikely that either the first minister or agriculture minister will resign from the assembly between now and the next Stormont election, scheduled for May 2022. If both put their names forward for selection, it could result in a rerun of the acrimonious leadership contest, only this time at a local level within the DUP's Lagan Valley constituency association.
On Monday, Sir Jeffrey told UTV that he would "like to be back (in the assembly) later this year".
"I'd like to get back into Stormont as quickly as possible but I'm not a member of the assembly so obviously I've got to find a way of getting back into the assembly," he said.
"At the moment there isn't a path for me though one may open up. It is certainly my intention to lead the party into the assembly election next May."