DUP in the doldrums - can Sir Jeffrey Donaldson revitalise his party's fortunes?
Nose-diving in the polls and at the mercy of the EU and British government over the protocol Sir Jeffrey Donaldson must ready the DUP for its toughest electoral test yet. Political Correspondent John Manley sets the scene for bruising few months ahead…
EVERYBODY’S talking about the DUP and the battle within political unionism. It would appear both are in various states of decline and as a consequence in flux. There is a corresponding confidence and conversation within nationalism – coupled with some schadenfreude – but that doesn’t automatically translate into majority support for Irish unity – at least not yet.
The polls indicate that the union is safe for now, yet unionism is clearly unnerved. Boris Johnson’s grand scale duplicity, a sense that England now matters more to the Tories than the union, and the associated momentum towards Scottish independence are huge factors unionism hasn’t had to contend with in the past.
This has led to introspection in some quarters, while elsewhere unionist purists and their allies among the disenfranchised working class continue to use the benchmark of a bygone era when critiquing the political landscape – as illustrated most recently by the (over) reaction to the south Armagh policing review.
The growing schism in unionism between an emerging wing that is socially moderate, less-confrontational and pragmatic, versus the flag-waving, Irish language-averse ultras sets a difficult challenge for DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson as he seeks to reverse his party’s steep decline. The DUP leader isn’t so much at a crossroads, as having each foot in two leaky boats embarking on divergent courses.
Peter Robinson, the most successful unionist leader of the 21st century, was skilled at maintaining support among distinct blocs within unionism. His hardline credentials and some clever manoeuvring enabled him to keep the Orange Order and loyalism on board, while he also appealed to those middle class unionists who’d prefer not to have flags on every lamppost in their street.
But changing social attitudes and the folly of Brexit, along with the unease its outworkings have caused within unionism, now makes this tactic more difficult to execute. As Mr Robinson himself highlighted earlier this year, the DUP cannot be opposed to the protocol and at the same time implement it, yet to choose the nuclear option would take the party into uncharted territory and the likelihood of unintended consequences, as happened with the flag protests.
The former first minister is taking more to do with the DUP than at any time since 2016, while senior special adviser Richard Bullick has also returned after a four year sabbatical. Mr Robinson has been tasked with reviewing the party structures he himself put in place, a process that is expected to be implemented soon, so as not to get in the way of next year’s bruising election campaign. The review isn’t something DUP voters are that concerned with but it matters to members and elected representatives.
“We’ve bounced back before”, supporters say, citing the 2008 Dromore by-election, Iris-gate and, to an extent, RHI. However, the DUP is this time forced to mount an unprecedented rearguard action, something it is unaccustomed to. When political support ebbs, it goes quickly. Perhaps nobody knows this more than Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who jumped from the UUP ship at just the right time.
So over the past fortnight, the new DUP leader has been more visible, roused initially from late summer slumber by the latest LucidTalk poll, then to meet the taoiseach and tánaiste, and to get outraged with the chief constable.
Sir Jeffrey’s style has traditionally been passive and principled. He’s not a rabble-rouser or prone to outbursts though his resignation from the Ulster Unionists in 2003 demonstrated that he is conscientious.
In the first DUP leadership contest, his supporters sought to cast him as just as hardline as Edwin Poots. It was claimed that he would boycott the north-south institutions in protest against the protocol, an approach that hasn’t yet materialised since he assumed the party leadership at the second attempt.
The Lagan Valley MP has instead opted for tough rhetoric, both in relation to the south Armagh policing controversy and on the Irish Sea border. This is clearly an attempt to appeal to his own party’s fundamentalists and to disgruntled DUP voters who are apparently flocking to the TUV. It is tempered nonetheless by a more pragmatic approach, as demonstrated by the Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar meetings – albeit using plenty of bluster for cover.
Agitation from Jeffrey is uncharacteristic – he isn’t meant to do angry and is more accustomed to diplomacy and persuasion – and while his new-found hard-nosed approach may woo back the doubters on the right, it could just as easily alienate DUP voters who gravitate towards the centre. This encapsulates unionism’s dilemma.
It seems we should prepare ourselves for some tub-thumping and the all-too-predictable 'don't let Sinn Féin be first minister' line in the months ahead, while quietly in the background there'll be plenty of Daniel O’Donnell diplomacy.
This dual approach seemingly worked for Peter Robinson but a century after the foundation of Northern Ireland and 50 years after the establishment of the DUP, unionism is suffering an identity crisis like no other. Can Sir Jeffrey find its sweet spot between now and next May or is unionism destined to fracture?