Issues

Jeffrey Donaldson MP: Confidence and competence

New DUP Leader Jeffrey Donaldson MP talks to David Whelan about his ambitions to unify the party after a turbulent upheaval of leaders, his ambitions to be First Minister and his opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

On Wednesday 30 June 2021, Jeffrey Donaldson MP, as the sole candidate, was ratified as the new leader of the DUP by the party’s ruling Executive.

It is a statement that, without context, would suggest a smooth transition of power at the head of Northern Ireland’s largest political party. However, it is also a statement that belies the reality of the division caused by the involuntary resignation of two party leaders in just a matter of weeks, events which sandwiched the party’s first ever leadership contest and the eventual elevation of the loser of that contest to the new party leader.

The MP for Lagan Valley admits that the period leading up to him becoming the fifth leader in the party’s 50-year history was “turbulent” but believes that things have settled down well within the party since his appointment as leader.

“Some would say I took the scenic route but sometimes you learn a lot when you get diverted,” he quips.

Despite his pride at being appointed to the leadership position, Donaldson says that it is not an ambition he previously harboured, before adding: “Nevertheless, when the opportunity arose and Arlene [Foster] announced that she was stepping down, I felt the time had come to put my name forward and give it a shot.”

Unification of the party, Donaldson outlines, is a key objective. While referencing reconciliation with Edwin Poots – who defeated Donaldson in the initial leadership contest by a narrow majority but only managed to hold the post for 21 days before his resignation – and his supporters, the MP says that he hopes to convince those who left the party to return, including councillors and an MLA.

“I think the events surrounding Arlene’s removal as leader and the subsequent leadership contest – and the divisiveness that that created – were damaging to the party, both internally and externally,” he concedes.

“What I am seeking to do, very quickly, is to repair that harm and to work with people across the party to reunify the party. We face an Assembly election next May and I think it is imperative that the DUP faces into that election as a united, coherent team.

“I think we need to demonstrate to people that we have the confidence to lead Northern Ireland and that we have the competence to lead Northern Ireland. A party that is confident in its own position and that has the competence to provide leadership in Northern Ireland is a party that is also capable of building bridges and building the kind of stronger more united Northern Ireland that we all need.”

Despite the upheaval within the DUP, Donaldson says that he has no intention of exhibiting a radically different leadership from any of the party’s previous leaders. He does, however, intend to bring his own “unique” style to leadership.

On what differences we can expect from a party led, in recent years, by Arlene Foster, but now overseen by Donaldson, he says: “Time will be the judge. Arlene and I come from a similar political stable. We both have an Ulster Unionist background and we both joined the DUP. In some respects, my leadership style will be different because [my predecessors] sought to lead at a time when a particular style of leadership was required.

“We are in a new situation where, six months down the road from the advent of the Northern Ireland Protocol, I think Northern Ireland has regressed, unfortunately. I want to halt that. To turn that back and get Northern Ireland into a better place. I recognise that we have a lot of bridge building to do in Northern Ireland.

“The starting point for all of that has to be a more united DUP,” he states.

Executive team

Undoubtedly, that ambition played on Donaldson’s mind when considering whether or not to alter his Executive team. Faced with a unique situation whereby his predecessor had announced a reshuffle of the party’s ministers just days before his resignation, Donaldson opted to replace just one newly appointed minister when he drafted in former Junior Minister Gordon Lyons MLA to replace North Antrim MLA Paul Frew in the economy portfolio.

“Some would say I took the scenic route but sometimes you learn a lot when you get diverted.”

Perhaps most tellingly, Donaldson opted to retain his predecessor Poots in the agriculture portfolio. Describing the “tough decisions” required of any party leader in making ministerial appointments, Donaldson explains his thinking behind his decision: “I felt it was important in the transition from Arlene’s leadership, through Edwin’s leadership and to my own, to have a degree of continuity. That is why, in the first instance, I didn’t make sweeping changes,” he states.

However, the MP indicates that he is likely to make changes later this year. “I do want to make some further changes at ministerial and at Assembly level, but I wanted time to talk to colleagues, to have a sense of their aspirations and of their interests.

“I want to spend the month of August focusing in on the changes that I want to make. However, I am not in a position, at this stage, to predict what those will look like.”

Quizzed on why then he made the decision to replace Frew so quickly, the leader replies: “I chose Gordon Lyons as Minister for the Economy because I think Gordon is a very talented member of our team who has a keen interest in the economy and in business related matters.

“For the DUP, growing our economy and building prosperity in Northern Ireland is an absolute priority.

“I feel that Gordon is well placed to do that, but Paul Frew is a very valued member of my team and when I make my further changes in September, Paul’s abilities will also be recognised.”

Some have suggested that Donaldson’s September timeline for a reshuffle may indicate a desire for an early election, however, the veteran MP is clear that this is not the case.

“I would like the Assembly to complete its full mandate and I hope we can avoid a situation where the institutions collapse before the end of the Assembly term. I am working on a timeline of an election in May.”

First Minister

Controversially, Donaldson’s immediate predecessor had split the roles of party leader and First Minister but the MP states that this is not a path he wishes to follow, instead, he is candid about his desire to be First Minister, despite not yet having a seat in the Assembly.

“The Assembly and the Executive are where most of the decisions that affect the people of Northern Ireland are now made and I feel that as leader I should lead from the front. That means finding a place in the Assembly, winning a seat and yes, I would aspire to be First Minister.”

Current First Minister Paul Givan MLA replaced Jeffery Donaldson MP as a Lagan Valley MLA in 2010.

Despite identifying August as an ideal timeframe for a return to Stormont, Donaldson says that he does not underestimate the challenge.

“At the moment there is not an opening for me to return to the Assembly. It may be that I have to wait until the Assembly elections next May. However, if an opportunity to return to the Assembly before then does arise, then I will seek to take it.”

An MP since 1997, Donaldson adds: “I love Westminster and I love being in Parliament but for me providing the leadership that Northern Ireland needs means being in the Assembly and in ministerial office.

“There is a huge job of work to do as First Minister for Northern Ireland in terms of delivering the changes I want to see and delivering a stronger more united Northern Ireland. I think being First Minister and working with other parties in the Executive, is the best platform on which to build our vision for the future of Northern Ireland.”

One path outlined by his predecessor, which Donaldson is intent on following, is the fulfilment of a fundamental review of the party’s structure and internal organisation. The RHI inquiry gave an unprecedented insight into the internal workings of the DUP and highlighted the significant levels of power held by unelected party officials.

In his manifesto before being appointed leader, Poots had outlined a plan to transform the DUP’s structure and functions and Donaldson indicates that a “fundamental review of our entire party structure and internal organisation” has now been initiated.

Setting out an expected timeline for an initial report to be returned by September and recommendations to be acted upon before the end of the year, Donaldson unveils that he has tasked former party leader and erstwhile First Minister Peter Robinson with carrying out the work.

“I think that’s an indication that we are serious about making the changes and reforms that need to happen,” he states.

Election 2021

Turning to how the DUP will approach the upcoming election, Donaldson says: “I want the DUP to be a more effective and more efficient electoral and political movement and I want to broaden the appeal of the DUP. I want to broaden our membership and I want, in particular, to attract younger people into the party. So, my starting point for that is a reform of our party organisation.

“If truth be told, in the past, the DUP has perhaps not sought to have the broadest appeal and I think that when you consider that the level of support for the union in Northern Ireland is greater than the level of support for the unionist parties, then there is a recognisable gap.

“It is a gap that, as the largest unionist party, we need to fill. That includes many young people and I want to persuade people who have moved towards the middle ground, for example, voting for the Alliance Party, to vote for unionist parties.

“I am unapologetically a unionist. I believe passionately in the union, but I believe in a unionism that is inclusive. I believe that unionism should be a broad church under which anyone, from any background, who believes that our place within the UK is offering the best future for Northern Ireland, should be able to participate.”

Asked to consider what a successful election might look like, the leader says: “At this stage, consolidation. Holding our ground is important and of course any political party likes to improve its position, but I recognise that in recent months our support has declined. That is evident in the opinion polls.

“We have a challenge in front of us to rebuild support for the party and I am confident that we can do that.”

Brexit

Donaldson admits that his early weeks of leadership have coincided with an incredibly busy period for Northern Ireland’s MPs in Westminster, centred on the UK Government’s proposals for the Northern Ireland Protocol and legacy.

In July 2021, the UK Government unveiled a new set of demands to redraw the post-Brexit trading arrangements it agreed with the EU for Northern Ireland, claiming that checks on goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland were damaging the “fabric” of the UK. The UK’s Brexit Minister David Frost claimed that the use of Article 16 – which would allow the UK to suspend parts of the Brexit deal but would also undoubtedly sour relations with the EU further and invite a lengthy legal process – was now justifiable but added his opinion that the time was not yet right.

Donaldson has pressed the UK Government to take unilateral action and invoke Article 16 but indicates some flexibility in his outlook at solving the “frictions” of the Protocol.

“I am focused on solutions,” he states, adding: “What matters less to me is the vehicle to arrive at those solutions and what matters more is that we get to them.”

The MP describes the UK’s proposals as a “significant moment” in that the UK Government has determined that the Protocol “is not working” but states that in the event of the EU being unwilling to enter “meaningful negotiation” to find new arrangements for trade, then the UK Government must consider invoking Article 16.

“I want to try and get an outcome where we are able to put in place trade arrangements between Great Britain and Northern Ireland that ensure the free movement of goods, without additional checks of bureaucracy where those goods are destined for Northern Ireland. Where those goods are coming from Great Britain, through Northern Ireland, I recognise that we need to have arrangements in place to satisfy the EU and that they are meeting the standards required but I think that can be achieved.”

Put to him that pursuing drastic changes to an agreement which the UK Government has already legally agreed to implement could risk the securities provided by that agreement, including an open border on the island of Ireland, Donaldson says: “I do not think there is a huge conflict between protecting the integrity of the UK internal market and protecting the integrity of the EU single market.”

“I would like the Assembly to complete its full mandate and I hope we can avoid a situation where the institutions collapse before the end of the Assembly term. I am working on a timeline of an election in May.”

Friction

The MP was speaking on the same day that the Chief Executive of Invest NI, the region’s economic development body, acknowledged frictions caused by the Protocol but said that the instrument offered more clarity for business and investors that the uncertainty that had existed during Brexit negotiations. Additionally, he says that his organisation was focused on selling the “opportunities” presented by the Protocol.

Asked if he was on the same page with local businesses when calling for the Protocol to be scrapped, the MP says: “Most of the businesses I speak to want to resolve the frictions on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and to avail of the opportunities that arise from our new trading arrangements. It should not be a question of either/or.”

In this regard, the DUP leader says that his party has developed a set of possible solutions, in discussion with experienced experts on issues such as customs and trade arrangements, that it will now put forward to the UK Government for consideration. However, he is coy about unveiling these solutions publicly, explaining that he wants to give the UK Government time to give them consideration.

On the risks of a breakdown of the arrangements and the relationship, he says: “There is no process that is risk-free, but I am confident that we can get practical solutions here that meet the needs of the UK, restore Northern Ireland’s place fully within the UK internal market and which remove the Irish Sea border but which enable the European Union to be satisfied that its single market is also protected.

“It is not in the interest of anyone where we end up in a situation where we have hard borders, whether that is an Irish Sea border, or a land border.”

Donaldson believes that post-Brexit, those involved in the negotiations are obligated to look at developing new relationships. Illustrating a desire to establish better relationships between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government, as well as the UK Government and Irish Government, he says that harm to the east-west relationship is upsetting the “delicate balance” of the three interlocking and inter-dependent relationships set out by the Good Friday Agreement and St Andrew’s Agreement.

“Let’s remove the harm that the Protocol is causing to that east-west relationship and that then opens up the opportunity to strengthen the relationships between the UK and Republic of Ireland. There are benefits for everyone by resolving this because we need political stability in Northern Ireland in order to secure economic stability and progress.”

Of course, frictions within the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol must be viewed in the wider context of being a consequence of Brexit. Donaldson’s party not only campaigned for Brexit but held an influential position within Westminster at a time when the Government brought forward its various Brexit proposals.

Most notably, the DUP voted against former Prime Minister Theresa May’s agreement that would have retained the whole of the UK in the customs union and a backstop for Northern Ireland. So, with hindsight does the MP believe his party would have done anything differently?

“It was a frustrating period because we were clear that we wanted to support a Brexit that delivered for all of the UK and specifically for Northern Ireland,” he replies. “I’m afraid neither Mrs May’s backstop proposal nor Boris Johnson’s Protocol achieve those objectives, in my opinion.”

Conveniently, given the DUP’s past influence in Westminster, Donaldson says: “For me, rather than dwelling on the past and how we got here, my focus in on how we resolved these issues, how we overcome the challenges in front of us and how we get an outcome that works for Northern Ireland.

“I am encouraged that when I look back over our journey of the last 25 years that the mountains in front of us are certainly no bigger than those we have already climbed. I am confident we can get solutions that work for Northern Ireland but that does require us to work together. I want to work with other political parties in Northern Ireland, as well as the UK Government, to achieve these outcomes.”

Concluding on what tangible success as the DUP’s fifth leader may look like over the remainder on the Assembly mandate, Donaldson puts resolution around the Protocol and addressing legacy in a way that enables victims to have access to truth and justice while helping society move forward, at the top of his list.

Added to this he identifies economic recovery and reform of the health service as priorities. “We have come through a very difficult pandemic and even now, face a third wave. We need to handle that very carefully but, economic recovery is crucial for Northern Ireland now.

“Allied to that, reform of our health service is an absolute priority. While the NHS did very well during the pandemic, we are now seeing the consequences of having to close down society in terms of a marked increase in people with mental health problems but also people languishing on waiting lists,” he concludes.

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