It’s been a long time coming…

In the past 12-months virtually every politically oriented piece I’ve submitted to Slugger – the others were about music –  has focussed on what I hoped Jeffrey Donaldson would do, what he needed to do, the obstacles he would face within the DUP  and whether he had the stomach or resilience to confront and overcome them. Now that Jeffrey has made his decisive and successive move, I think it’s apposite to revisit some of my earlier comments in that context.

“Jeffrey’s problem here is not the broad Unionist community. I detect no broad anger or resentment about the protocol among my peers and fellow unionists so I believe any deal would be easy to sell if approached properly. His problem is his own party membership and his willingness and ability to challenge and confront them over what promises to be by far the best deal likely to be on offer.”

One only needed to look at the gathering outside the DUP Executive meeting on Monday night to witness the truth in that. This is not 1974 or 1985. Or even 2018 when Paisley was railing about the GFA. I am too young to have any vivid memories of the UWC Strike but I do know there were massive numbers behind it. I do remember the AIA protests in 1985 and took part in a few protests at which there were thousands or even tens of thousands of people in attendance. Plus we can all remember how easy Paisley found it to rouse big numbers for whatever hobby horse he was on. But that’s not where we are now. We’ve had 25 years of peace and relative normality and you’d need to be well into your 40s to have any meaningful recollection of the Troubles. Plus people have come to realise that just because a politician or blogger or commentator says the union is under threat that doesn’t make it so. So people in the unionist/pro-union community are not inclined to join marches or rallies about something that doesn’t bother them much or show any meaningful negative impact on them.

Monday night’s protest reflected that reality. Not only in the small number in attendance, but let’s face it there was nobody there any of us had ever heard of or who’d ever been elected to anything. Some of the media had to lower themselves to focus on some guy who joined the DUP, got co-opted to some council or other then left them. This was not the grass roots speaking. Or anything like it. I’m sure that didn’t go unnoticed by the DUP delegates as they arrived at the venue.

“Jeffrey should be feeling emboldened and confident following his recent successes. He needs to be as I genuinely believe that he now has the opportunity to fully claim his party as his own. It’s no coincidence that the most tangible fear of any deal has come from the old Paisleyite rump in Westminster and I was heartened to see Jeffrey flanked at Stormont media briefings by three of his younger party reps who I would associate with the Robinson era of half-finished modernisation. The question isn’t whether Jeffrey CAN do this, but whether he WANTS to. Is he prepared to face down Wilson, Paisley Jr and co within his party and Jim Allister without it? There will never be a better opportunity. Or there may never be another one.”

This was my biggest fear. I had no doubt Jeffrey knew what he needed to do. But it was always going to be a risky – probably either career defining or career ending – move, from a man never renowned for his enthusiasm for taking risks. But he did it. People like Nigel Dodds, Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley’s son may not strike most of us as particularly formidable politicians, but that’s to ignore the nature of most people who join political parties. All political parties. The DUP in particular still has those who joined a party of protest. A party of outsiders. And they want to keep it that way. Dodds, Wilson and Paisley are their connection with the Paisley era and that makes them much harder to confront inside the party than outside it. This type of party stalwart even stopped Paisley himself from embracing a form of voluntary coalition with the SDLP as far back as 1975/76. He was their hero. A Godlike figure to them. Jeffrey Donaldson was a guest in their party, leader on sufferance. By taking on the DUP old guard on Monday night and by winning, that may all have changed in a very big way.

In doing so he answered me on this one from last April, when my hope for him was waning in the aftermath of what looked like a weak reaction to the Windsor Declaration:

“It looked to me as if Jeffrey had the realism to accept he would need to return his party to Stormont as this was as good as it was going to get. I still think he has that realism. The big question was still whether or not he has the resilience, self-confidence to take the issue to its logical conclusion, and whether he is prepared to risk his leadership by doing the right thing for Northern Ireland and for the United Kingdom. As it stands it looks like he may have allowed the game to drift out of his hands by showing too much respect to Jim Allister and to a couple of organisations the rest of the country simply don’t regard as serious. He needs to either get himself out of this pit or to find someone who can get him out of it with as much grace as possible.”

So I’m pleased with the events of Monday night. A reconvened Stormont will not be a panacea to all our society’s challenges. Far from it. But it’s a better option than drift, the least worst alternative. I’ve had reason to use the services of our NHS over the past 18 months, both as a patient and as a close family member. The personnel in it are incredible both professionally and personally. But they need support and money. So do so many of the other core pillars of society and so do our cities and towns. I’ve no particular confidence in most of our potential ministers to fix all our problems to meet all our needs. But there are some capable people in Stormont who could have a decent stab at it. That again is better than drift. So bring them on.

Also Jeffrey Donaldson has hopefully done unionism a service this week. I said here nearly a year ago:

“If Jeffrey embraces any new deal with a degree of visible confidence he can move the epicentre of DUP politics back to Northern Ireland, where it needs to be, Strengthened in that way he might even have an opportunity to redefine and realign political unionism in a way that is unambiguously pro union but which may lure lapsed voters back to unionism and to reclaim lapsed electoral strength in the pro-union heartlands of Greater Belfast. That’s not a process that can be completed overnight but if Jeffrey is seen to be the Unionist leader who finally confronts and eliminates the last vestiges of Paisley from our politics it is achievable.”

As said above, this can’t be achieved overnight. But it needs to happen. I have never voted DUP because of the harm I feel the party historically caused to both society as a whole and to the credibility of the unionist position (though they were not alone in that). But the people Jeffrey surrounds himself with – the likes of Gavin Robinson and others – do not present the old image of the DUP.  Far from it. Personally I don’t believe unionist realignment and regained electoral strength can be fully realised under the DUP banner, but it can come under a functioning and credible Stormont with a good quality of unionist ministers visibly performing their roles well for the whole of society. Hence I don’t believe the UUP should go into opposition when d’Hondt is run if it has MLAs capable of being good ministers. Which I’m sure it has. The pro-union electorate needs to see that if it is to be coaxed back to either political unionism or even to the ballot box at all. That’s an even bigger challenge than the one Jeffrey Donaldson has faced down. But it’s an easier one to deliver on.

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