Jeffrey Donaldson to be crowned DUP leader unopposed

The veteran politician wants the UK government to 'take decisive action' to ditch post-Brexit arrangements affecting Northern Ireland.

Jeffrey Donaldson to be crowned DUP leader unopposed

Jeffrey Donaldson, the veteran Democratic Unionist Party MP who narrowly failed last month to be elected party chief, will succeed at the second attempt this week. His stated mission: to weaken, and eventually overturn, the post-Brexit trade arrangements in Northern Ireland.

Donaldson’s unopposed nomination Tuesday to succeed the hapless Edwin Poots clears the path for him to be ratified by DUP officers as the party’s new leader this weekend.

It’s a stunning turnaround for Donaldson. Those same officers in mid-May had picked Poots over Donaldson in a 19-17 vote, only to force Poots to resign last week after he failed to seek their consent to fill the top post in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government.

There’s little chance of such a rudimentary stumble from Donaldson. He has built his career by identifying, and never testing, the limits of what British unionists in Northern Ireland will tolerate.

In his declaration seeking the DUP leadership, Donaldson emphasized that his community cannot tolerate the Northern Ireland Protocol, the section of the Brexit withdrawal deal that makes it easier to trade with the Republic of Ireland than with Britain. Unionists want to stay part of the U.K., not join the rest of Ireland as their Irish republican opponents seek.

“Now, more than ever, we need to unite in the face of the threats posed to Northern Ireland by the protocol,” he said. “Make no mistake. This is the number one issue facing our country, our people and our place within the United Kingdom.”

Donaldson said he would ensure that the British government “doesn’t just listen, but recognizes the need to take decisive action to deal quickly with the protocol.”

Donaldson is often described as a party “centrist.” This is true in the sense that, unlike Poots, he commands respect and support from both the Protestant evangelical and more earthly grounded wings of the DUP. He also has a track record in diplomacy, which in the relatively friendless world of unionism mostly means regular engagement with events and media in the Republic of Ireland.

This doesn’t make him in any sense a moderate or progressive figure though. As London already knows and Dublin and Brussels are about to find out, Donaldson will present a tougher challenge in negotiations than the less experienced Poots.

Decades ago, Donaldson cemented his reputation as a unionist who requires agreements to be in explicit and binding terms, particularly for the other side. In 1998, when the Ulster Unionist Party — then the dominant representative of British Protestants in Northern Ireland — was about to support the Good Friday peace agreement, Donaldson rejected the deal. TV cameras caught him leaving the talks venue hours before its achievement.

He defected to the more stubborn Democratic Unionists, who rejected the deal because it allowed the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party into Northern Ireland’s new unity government without Irish Republican Army disarmament in response. That dispute wrecked Northern Ireland’s first power-sharing efforts and drove Protestants to the DUP, which finally did agree to cooperate with Sinn Féin in 2007 — but only after the IRA surrendered its arms and Sinn Féin formally accepted the Northern Ireland police.

Now, Donaldson hints that he will pull the DUP out of power-sharing, collapsing the government once again, unless Britain unilaterally eases or delays more enforcement of protocol trade rules at Northern Ireland’s ports.

While the DUP does expect the U.K. government to make decisions soon to delay the rollout of more protocol rules, he has laid down a foreboding marker should Britain disappoint.

“A failure to act,” Donaldson said, “will undoubtedly have consequences for the stability of our political institutions and the prosperity of our economy.”

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