Does Jeffrey Donaldson plan to turn the DUP into the UUP for slow learners? - The Irish News view

Changing realities mean the DUP also needs to change

DUP Leader Jeffrey Donaldson and UUP Leader Doug Beattie  , as Northern Ireland's devolved government is restored, Two years to the day since it collapsed. PICTURE:  COLM LENAGHAN
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson and UUP leader Doug Beattie together at Parliament Buildings, Stormont. Donaldson has been talking this week about moving his party towards the space occupied by the Ulster Unionists (Colm Lenaghan)

It would be easier to take Jeffrey Donaldson seriously when he says he wants to win converts and grow support for “Northern Ireland within the union” if he and the DUP hadn’t spent years accelerating in the opposite direction.

He is just the latest unionist leader to be caught in a vertigo of political indecision, and now seems to want to present the DUP as the UUP for slow learners.

The DUP’s defining policy in recent years has been the pursuit of Brexit, in as hard a form as possible and regardless of the harm it might cause.

Smug indifference to legitimate concerns and objections to Brexit - including from within unionism - and an abject failure to take responsibility for the inevitable calamity which followed has done more to advance interest in a border poll than it has to safeguard the union.

Boycotting powersharing for two years because its Brexit fantasy didn’t materialise was another peculiar way to try and grow support for the union.

We have been here before. Peter Robinson spoke more than 10 years ago of how he wanted to persuade Catholics to vote for the DUP; history shows us that these impulses quickly fade

Sir Jeffrey’s apparent change of tone was signalled to DUP supporters in Newry and Armagh this week.

He spoke of changing demographics and political priorities: “Either we close our eyes and ignore it, or we recognise that we are no longer in a place where 70% of the population are red, white and blue British.”

There was a time when that didn’t matter to unionism. As Pat McArt, a former editor of the Derry Journal, reminds us in his column today, gerrymandering meant a unionist minority was able to dominate the city’s corporation.

Thankfully those days are behind us, though it would be naïve to assume that gerrymandered mindsets don’t still exist.

The political and demographic changes the DUP leader alluded to mean that today, around 40% of the population vote for unionist parties, with a similar proportion backing nationalists and republicans.

This leaves a burgeoning centre ground - presently dominated by Alliance - who will become decisive in any future unity vote.

It is in this direction that Sir Jeffrey will have to turn the DUP if it is to even begin to “win converts”. But we have been here before. For example, Peter Robinson spoke more than 10 years ago of how he wanted to persuade Catholics to vote for the DUP; history shows us that these positive impulses quickly fade.

Sinn Féin, of course, must also aim for the middle ground to bolster its unity project. A competent, stable and mature Stormont executive will go a long way to supporting its case just as much as it will the DUP’s. That ought to be a recipe for better public services and a more prosperous north, which will be to everyone’s benefit.