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DUP survival on the line after Jeffrey Donaldson resignation

Jeffrey Donaldson has been charged with non-recent sex offences against children. Credit: Getty

March 29, 2024 - 7:30pm

The first sign that something was afoot with the leader of Northern Ireland’s largest pro-British party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), came late on Thursday evening when all Jeffrey Donaldson’s social media accounts and his official website were deleted without comment. By Friday lunchtime, the Police Service of Northern Ireland confirmed that Donaldson had been charged with non-recent sex offences. A 57-year-old woman, widely named as his wife, has been charged with aiding and abetting in connection with the alleged offences.

The timing of the charges verges on the surreal. It is less than two months after the DUP allowed Northern Ireland’s governing multi-party power-sharing Executive to be restored, two years after it collapsed, and under a Sinn Féin First Minister for the first time ever. The return to government was contentious both within the DUP and in wider Unionist circles, where there is still deep unhappiness at the post-Brexit arrangements agreed by the UK government and the EU.

Since the return to government, the DUP has been showing its most moderate and pragmatic face to Northern Ireland’s electorate. Just this week, Donaldson was photographed smiling at a Holy Week event in Belfast involving a Catholic priest, something that would once have been anathema to the party’s fundamentalist Protestant base. DUP ministers in the Executive have also had themselves photographed trying out hurling and Gaelic football with youth teams, sports with a long association with Irish Republicanism — and considered almost as heretical as Catholicism to Ulster’s religious Right.

Party strategists were aware that its electorate nowadays includes more pragmatists than fundamentalists, and these were getting restive at the long suspension of government while the region’s public services crumbled. They were also aware that Northern Ireland’s long-term future will be decided by moderate swing voters in any future border poll — most of whom would never consider voting for the DUP and who were increasingly starting to see Northern Ireland as a failing state.

Donaldson is a member of the House of Commons rather than the Northern Ireland Assembly, so at least in the immediate term the Executive’s survival is not threatened. The DUP’s leader there is Emma Little-Pengelly, deputy First Minister, from the party’s less religious and more moderate end. She is unlikely to want to risk early Assembly elections, so the government show at Stormont is almost certain to remain on the road.

Another sign that moderates remain in pole position inside the DUP, at least for the moment, is that ultra-moderate East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson was selected as interim leader by the party’s officers before the announcement about Donaldson had even been made public.

Yet Robinson’s own electoral predicament demonstrates how threats to the DUP and the political settlement may sprout quickly in just a few months’ time. Robinson won his seat by barely 1,800 votes in 2019 and NI political anoraks think boundary changes have shaved several hundred votes off that. He is not the only DUP MP defending a modest majority.

The UK General Election was already expected to be difficult for the DUP before this announcement. The political environment for the party just became more challenging.

Gerry Lynch was Executive Director of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland from 2007-10 and is now a country parson in Wiltshire.

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Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
3 months ago

In the 2022 Assembly election, unionist candidates won 24,506 votes in East Belfast, over 10,000 more than Alliance. Notwithstanding Alliance gains elsewhere, in strongly unionist constituencies like East Belfast voters have noticed that Alliance is no longer a moderate pro-Union party, but is now essentially a more energetic version of the SDLP.

Gerry Lynch
Gerry Lynch
3 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

You seem to overlook that there were another 4,700 odd votes in the Assembly election in East Belfast cast for non-Unionist, non-Alliance candidates. Most will vote tactically for Alliance in a Westminster election. Andy Allen polled 5,200 votes for the UUP. Some will vote tactically for the DUP, but others will never go in that direction in any circumstances, and a few will even go to Alliance to stop the DUP. The constituency is also taking a chunk of South Belfast, about 10% of its new electorate – some bits good for the DUP, but somewhat better for Alliance, and also adding about another 2,500 SDLP voters to squeeze. Gavin Robinson is a competent and hard-working operator and I doubt he’s as complacent about this as you are. By the way – I was the election agent the only time Alliance actually won East Belfast in a Westminster election, so I do know what I’m talking about.
But the DUP is also vulnerable in Lagan Valley (to Alliance), South Antrim (to the UUP), and Upper Bann (to SF). Possibly also – although I don’t quite see it myself – in Strangford to Alliance and even, if SF get their act together there, in East L/Derry. Only North Antrim is genuinely bombproof this time. I think it’s unlikely they’ll be reduced that far, but only 3-4 DUP MPs remaining is quite realistic.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
3 months ago

‘Can you feel the silence?’
Van Morrison