UK government to set out way forward on the Northern Ireland Protocol to Parliament

The Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland has a new leader after four weeks of organized chaos. But as Ken Murray reports from Dublin, the new head of the party, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP (pictured), has a mountain to climb to address serious issues which could ultimately threaten his own tenure as Leader of the divided DUP while opponents Sinn Féin count down the days to next year’s Assembly elections.

An optimist might say, ‘the crisis is over’ while a pessimist might say ‘it’s only just beginning.’

That’s the delicate dilemma the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party faces as it attempts to pick itself up off the muddy political floor following the most self-inflicted bruising in its 50 years of existence.

On Saturday last, the Party executive voted 32 to four to elect Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP as its fifth leader since 1971 but, more interestingly, its third leader since May 14th!

It followed the coup against Arlene Foster led by Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots over her decision to abstain in a vote on banning gay conversion therapy!

21 Days after Poots ousted her from the top job, he too was forced to resign in humiliating circumstances after accepting proposals by the British Government to introduce an Irish Language Act without consulting with party colleagues who were furious over the decision!

The 58-year old new DUP Leader from the Lagan Valley Constituency has inherited something of an organisational mess.

Even though he is Party Leader but without a seat in the Stormont Parliament, he has to retain Poots’ selection of Paul Givan in the role of First Minister, something he says he can live with for the foreseeable future but one which leaves him somewhat out of the loop when it comes to dealing with Boris Johnson in London, Micheál Martin in Dublin and Ursula Von Der Leyen in Brussels!

Donaldson, who opposed the historic British-Irish Peace Agreement of 1998 which anchored down the paramilitary ceasefires, has a desk full of immediate issues to deal with which could determine his future and that of his Party.

First on the agenda is the DUP opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol, a contentious annex to the British Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union which sees customs checks on goods entering NI from GB, an imposition that is viewed by unionists as moving the Province closer to an economic united Ireland.

Speaking to reporters following the approval of his nomination for DUP Leader, Sir Jeffrey said, “I want to make it clear to the Irish Government that their cheerleading for the protocol is simply not acceptable, given the harm that it is doing to Northern Ireland, it is dragging our politics backwards.”

Putting the blame for the Northern Ireland Protocol firmly at the door of the Dublin Government and hinting that he was prepared to collapse the Assembly Parliament in Belfast, he went on to say that, “If the Irish Government is genuine about protecting the peace process and protecting political stability in Northern Ireland, then they too need to listen to unionist concerns.

“If the Irish Government continues to support the imposition of a protocol that harms our relationship with Great Britain then by implication it harms the relationship between Dublin and Belfast,” he said.

The Irish Government has always insisted that the Northern Ireland Protocol was reached between the UK and the EU last December suggesting that Dublin is getting the blame for something it had no hand, act or part to play in apart from raising concerns that a hard customs-checks border on the island of Ireland might aggravate dormant members of the IRA to go back to terrorism 24 years after calling a ceasefire in 1997.

In the meantime, as he pushes London and Brussels to lessen the impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol and awaits a High Court ruling on its legality, Jeffrey Donaldson has to work out how he can take a seat in the Stormont Assembly!

One possibility is to be co-opted in to Arlene Foster’s Fermanagh-South Tyrone seat should she decide to resign. Assuming he can be elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly, he is likely to ask Paul Givan to resign and replace him as First Minister.

If not, he could be the Party Leader only and in isolation from that position for some time!

Elsewhere, disillusioned colleagues as well as rank and file members are hopeful he can re-unite the DUP which has split itself down the middle in light of the heave against its former Leader Arlene Foster with opposing Donaldson and Poots camps emerging.

This could be made all the more difficult as Donaldson may be forced to demote Edwin Poots’ colleagues who were recently appointed as ministers, while promoting those who backed him for the leadership position, a move that could intensify already entrenched positions!

Donaldson told reporters last weekend that he will set up a “New Century Party Panel” to deliver reforms within the next 12 weeks.

However, the biggest test Sir Jeffrey Donaldson faces in his new role is how to revive the declining fortunes of the Party which are under threat due to changing demographics.

A LucidTalk opinion poll in May for the Belfast Telegraph newspaper put support for the pro-Irish unity Party Sinn Féin at 25% with the DUP trailing at 16%.

These are seismic figures in Northern Ireland as loosely translated they mean that Sinn Féin will likely be the biggest party in the Stormont Assembly for the first time when the elections take place next May thus marking the end of unionist political dominance since 1921 when the British divided Ireland.

Assuming this happens, Sinn Féin will occupy the First Minister’s seat, have the most ministerial positions and will increase the pressure on London to grant a united Ireland referendum in the coming years to bring British rule in Northern Ireland to a formal end!

Donaldson, who lost two relatives to IRA gunmen in separate incidents, is mindful more than most of the symbolism if Sinn Féin take the First Minister position next May.

As he would see it, the IRA bombed and shot their way over 25 years to get what they wanted and successive London governments since 1990 facilitated some of their demands, an evolving development.

Keeping Sinn Féin at bay – many of whose members are ex-IRA – will be his biggest challenge over the next year.

Failure to do so could see him ousted as DUP Leader by party hardliners in the summer of 2022.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP has a mountain to climb.

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