Opinion

David McCann: Jeffrey Donaldson running out of time to get DUP back to Stormont

David McCann

David McCann

David McCann is an Irish News columnist and commentator on politics and elections.

The DUP's boycott of Stormont has bolstered the position of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson's party within unionism but has also made Sinn Féin electorally untouchable
The DUP's boycott of Stormont has bolstered the position of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson's party within unionism but has also made Sinn Féin electorally untouchable The DUP's boycott of Stormont has bolstered the position of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson's party within unionism but has also made Sinn Féin electorally untouchable

The silly season is nearly at an end in politics. Autumn is coming and the focus is slowly turning back towards whether the DUP will take the leap and go back into government in October.

The strategy of the party in withdrawing from the institutions has been a boon electorally, just not for the DUP. Jeffrey Donaldson can certainly take comfort from the fact that the DUP were not decimated in May 2022 and in the recent local elections they were comfortably returned as the largest unionist party.

However, their strategy has had the other effect of boosting Sinn Féin to heights of electoral support that once upon a time they could only have dreamed of. Record Assembly and local election results have been achieved in part by how nationalist voters perceive the DUP's strategy of staying out of Stormont.

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That demographic of voters whom Sinn Féin had struggled to reach for many years have now flocked over to the party with more than 75 per cent of nationalist voters voting for them. That's up from the mid-60 per cent rage that Sinn Féin traditionally received around a decade ago.

This consolidation of the nationalist vote has made Sinn Féin untouchable electorally and seen them become the largest party in the Assembly and local government.

What is striking is that we are at this stage of the political cycle, where a general election is no more than 16 months away and the DUP are facing the potential of re-running the same strategy that has led to so much success for their main political foes.

Going into this election, Sinn Féin faces potential challenges in three seats: South Down, Fermanagh/South Tyrone and North Belfast. Even with boundary changes, these would still be considered competitive races.

Yet if Sinn Féin repeats their storming performances of 2022 and 2023, all of these seats would be retained by the party with swings to them in every constituency. Moreover, this surge in support would give Sinn Féin a spring in their step in two other seats, Upper Bann and Foyle.

If the current political trajectory continues, the poor result for Sinn Féin in 2019 will be completely reversed and once marginal seats for the party will be retained with increased majorities. Two of these results (North Belfast and Fermanagh/South Tyrone) will be at the expense of unionism. What will make these results sting more is that even with a combined effort from the main parties of unionism, it still won't be enough to halt a slide in support.

Jeffrey Donaldson faces some big challenges in the coming weeks. Taking action has risks but so too does not taking action. Unionism has had a run of poor election results since 2022 and cannot afford to have many more. The strategy of staying out of the Executive has bolstered the DUP within unionism, but its wider impact on the electorate outside of this has been to effectively turn nationalism into a one-party vehicle and see the pro-union share of the electoral pie shrink.

If the DUP hold off for much longer they will be too close to polling day to make the leap back into government and then the Sinn Féin Westminster campaign writes itself. Except this time, with two elections under the bridge, the DUP cannot admit shock when the final results come in.

Going back into the Executive is the only show in town for every party. Staying out has only ever worked in the short term and then the weariness in the public sets in. The DUP fear the consequences of a border down the Irish Sea, but not enough thought has been put into the consequences of bringing the effective governance of Northern Ireland to a halt.

Jeffrey Donaldson needs to create a circuit breaker in the weeks ahead. He has stabilised the DUP and seen off his main rivals within unionism. Confidence begets confidence, and Sinn Féin has this in spades. The DUP need to recognise the strength of their own position within unionism too.