Northern Ireland

John Manley: Dithering Donaldson is unlikely to face down the DUP dissenters

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA

For some it may require a huge leap of the imagination, but in many ways Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is most of us.

His leaked email exposes a man deeply frustrated by the antics of a handful of DUP elders whose dogged intransigence has put the future of devolution in serious doubt.

The superannuated triumvirate of Dodds, Paisley and Wilson, each politically safe and financially secure, have consistently agitated and undermined every effort to secure a compromise that would enable Stormont to be restored.

Rejecting pragmatism in favour of purist principles, they and their limited but significant enough support within the DUP still believe that Brexit can be imposed on the north against the will of an overwhelming majority. 

But before we start feeling too sorry for the beleaguered DUP leader, let's not forget that much of this situation is of his own making - or at least his failure to act with authority.

There have been numerous opportunities to break the cycle of negativity but each has been spurned, whether through unwillingness or a failure to lead. 

Given there's been so many DUP missteps since 2016, it's hard to pinpoint where things went wrong, and arguably the situation the party now finds itself in is the result of cumulative cackhandedness, from its jingoistic, short-sighted support for leaving the EU to its failure to grasp the lifeline that is the Windsor Framework.

Rather than adhering to its own directive of 'doing what's best for Northern Ireland', the DUP under Donaldson's leadership has taken its lead from unionism's extremes, both within its own ranks and even more incredibly, externally.

In his email he complains of "years of daily gutting each other" by fellow unionists but neglects to mention that he's responsible for giving legitimacy and the oxygen of publicity to those with no electoral mandate.  

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Increasingly, it's difficult to discern who the true Jeffrey Donaldson is. Is he the mild-mannered parliamentarian who realises his own parallels with David Trimble in the immediate aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement and recognises the need for an accommodation, or is he the hard-nosed ultra who still believes the decision to skewer his former leader was vindicated?

The content of the Lagan Valley MP's weekend message to party members hints at the former; a leader who's run out of patience with the naysayers and their terminal truculence, yet his actions over the past 18 months suggest otherwise.

What becomes clearer by the day, however, is that the DUP is running out of road and that its stalling tactic and pleas to the British government are seemingly going nowhere.

The Sunak administration that bent over backwards to help Sir Jeffrey out of a hole, now has other priorities and is determined not to reopen a negotiation with the EU.

At some point, the DUP's internal divisions must come to a head but on the evidence so far the leader appears content merely to complain rather than act  - and to continue dithering on the Windsor Framework.