DUP deal: Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP have to prove that the price for its backtracking will be worth it - Alex Kane

The ultimate victory has to be governance that makes a difference for the better

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is an Irish News columnist and political commentator and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

DUP leader Sir Jeffery Donaldson MP during the press conference
DUP leader Sir Jeffery Donaldson MP during this morning's press conference confirming the party was returning to Stormont (Liam McBurney)

As a former member of the UUP I have to thank karma for cheering me up on a cold Monday evening. I never thought the day would come when a DUP meeting would make the UUP under David Trimble look like a role model for harmony, unity, party management and relative sanity.

Jeffrey Donaldson’s most important moment as leader—indeed, the DUP’s most important moment since the 2007 decision to cut the Paisley/McGuinness deal—was overshadowed by an off-site blogger and his in-the-room accomplice.

The fact that it was all happening in a wedding venue added greatly to the sense of the outré: like Neighbours meets Get Smart, by way of The Traitors.

In terms of espionage, though, it was all pretty low key. No camera footage. No running soundtrack. Just one person in the room with some sort of device—which may well have been a Christmas-stocking present from the B&M toy section—relaying something to someone else outside the room who, in turn, was tweeting out his personal interpretation of what was going on.

Fair enough, it may have been embarrassing for the DUP, but so what? Jeffrey Donaldson got the victory he wanted. And, in politics, it’s the victory that counts—even those played out in an epically bonkers background.

My own cunning plan for bringing you the inside story was scuppered when my specially trained cat—complete with a discreet high-tech eavesdropping device attached to his collar—lay down and spent the next few hours purring and licking his bits. Whether or not he missed any startling revelations or jaw-dropping speeches I’ll never know.

And to be honest, I don’t really care. All that matters is that Donaldson, fuelled by the response to his House of Commons speech last Wednesday, finally put the deal to his party and got the answer he wanted.

As I’ve been saying for some time last night’s ‘moment’ had become unavoidable. The longer the party allowed the will-it-won’t-it-do-a-deal saga to rumble on the greater the likelihood that potential supporters would get spooked and back away.

More important, indecision was strengthening the hand of anti-deal opponents inside and outside the party, allowing them to get their own versions into the public domain and forcing Donaldson into a defensive position rather than positive promotion.

But Donaldson isn’t out of the woods, yet. Things often look different in the cold light of dawn. Certainties are not so certain. Victories not so glorious. His enemies will be preparing their next moves. There is the possibility of councillor and MLA defections—although that shouldn’t be a huge problem. Losing an MP or two won’t have the same impact when a general election is in the offing anyway. And there won’t be an assembly election, either, which makes life easier for him.

What about the Orange Order, TUV, LCC and the new-generation loyalism of Jamie Bryson and Moore Holmes? What do they do now? There will be talk of protests, rallies and assorted disruptions, but I’m not sure to what end or purpose.

I know there’s anger across the unionist/loyalist communities about the Windsor Framework, but it’s hard to battle something endorsed by a whopping parliamentary majority. I know there’s anger about U-turning on the seven tests; but those tests predate the Framework and circumstances have changed since then.

So, Donaldson’s opponents will be pinning their hopes on the legislative components of the deal being derailed fairly quickly. But since there has clearly been choreography between the government and Donaldson I’m quite sure the legislation is ready to roll, and that time has already been set aside for it in the parliamentary timetable.

Those who want this deal to work know that the next stages have to be done quickly before anything resembling a unionist/loyalist backlash emerges.

Cartoon showing journalists running to a DUP meeting with smoke coming out of the building. Once they get into it they realise it is smoke coming from underage vapers
Ian Knox cartoon 30/1/24

The immediate reaction on my school run this morning (and Indy thought my talking to people would make him late) was, to be honest, fairly low key. There was no sense of euphoria, even from those who welcomed the breakthrough. Two or three who thought the DUP had let them down didn’t seem all that surprised.

The general feeling was what I’ll describe as the “do you think it’ll make any difference” response. And that is going to be the greatest challenge for all of the parties and for the DUP in particular. It has to prove that the price for its backtracking will be worth it in the long term.

The other parties, who have spent two years encouraging a return, also have to prove that the assembly and executive really will make a difference for the better. That’s the only yardstick of success that really matters right now.