Democratic Unionist leader Jeffrey Donaldson says he’s determined to get Northern Ireland’s cross-community government restored — and won’t be deterred by die-hards from his own side of the divide.
In the most impassioned speech of his DUP leadership, Donaldson told the House of Commons on Wednesday he’d just received threats from loyalist hard-liners. He said they sought to brand him a traitor before he’d even clinched an agreement with the U.K. government on ending the DUP’s blockade of power-sharing at Stormont following two years of deadlock over post-Brexit trade rules.
“The Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army) attacked me in the past and it didn’t deflect me from the task — and I will not be deflected now … We are committed to getting a solution,” he told lawmakers to an unusual chorus of praise from other parties.
Donaldson was speaking during debate on the U.K. government’s latest effort to save Stormont — a bill to extend the deadline for reviving the multi-party administration, to be jointly led by the DUP and the Irish republicans of Sinn Féin, to February 8.
The bill, expected to pass all stages at Westminster within hours, creates a tight window for Donaldson to win backing from the DUP’s 12-member officer board. He needs their majority support to resume power-sharing in Northern Ireland, the centerpiece of its 1998 peace accord.
But surrounding Donaldson, and illustrating the difficulty of that task, were DUP lawmakers and party officers who now hold his political fate in their hands.
In 2021, Donaldson became leader of what was a bitterly split party on only the second attempt. He solidified his position by going hardline, pulling the plug on power-sharing in protest against the U.K.-EU Withdrawal Agreement’s creation of a so-called “Irish Sea border” requiring checks and restrictions on British goods entering Northern Ireland.
Next to him sat Gavin Robinson, the east Belfast MP who has been at Donaldson’s side during the past year’s marathon of talks with the U.K. government seeking to slash requirements on EU customs enforcement and other concessions. Robinson, considered one of the party officers most likely to back compromise, claimed that the DUP was still united — and that any attack on Donaldson would amount to an attack on that unity.
“We have stood together through worse times than this. Anybody who thinks they’re going to come at one member of our party in coming days and weeks comes at us all,” he said.
But two DUP MPs viewed as firmly in the anti-agreement camp, Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley Jr., didn’t join those appeals for unity.
Paisley, son of the party’s late fire-and-brimstone founder but no longer a party officer, didn’t speak at all. Instead he positioned himself behind Donaldson and, arms folded, flared his eyes and smirked as his leader spoke.
‘What have you delivered?’
Donaldson took his most explicit shots at Traditional Unionist Voice, a small extremist party positioning itself to hoover up disaffected DUP voters should Donaldson be seen to accept any form of post-Brexit trade border within the U.K.
The TUV’s leader, Jim Allister, has consistently condemned post-Brexit trade rules that make it easier for Northern Ireland firms and consumers to import goods from the Republic of Ireland and other EU countries than from Britain. That problem has been reduced but not entirely removed by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Windsor Framework agreement with the EU.
“I say to those who point the finger at us: What have you delivered? What has the Traditional Unionist Voice party delivered by way of change to the [trade] protocol? Absolutely nothing. Not a single thing. Nothing,” Donaldson said, his voice rising an octave and many decibels above his normally mild delivery. “And yet they put up posters in the dark of the night, before any deal has been done, talking about a sellout.”
Donaldson then said he’d received new threats from loyalists, at least one of whom he could identify — and knew, from inspecting the electoral register, that the person in question hadn’t even voted in the last Northern Ireland Assembly election. He contrasted that with his own 27-year career as an MP and, before that, as a member of the British army’s Troubles-era Ulster Defence Regiment.
Donaldson said he was being threatened “by those who never put on a uniform, by those who haven’t served our country.”
He didn’t identify any of those threatening him by name. DUP officials told POLITICO that Donaldson had received two threats on Wednesday morning but declined to detail their nature.
The TUV leader, Allister, denounced the threats as “absolutely appalling.” But he defended his own party’s record as having “stiffened Sir Jeffrey and stiffened the DUP” in opposing a post-Brexit system “that says GB [Great Britain] is a foreign country.”
Moderates normally irritated by Donaldson’s sabotage of Stormont came to his defense Wednesday. Colum Eastwood, the Social Democratic and Labour Party leader who represents Londonderry in Parliament, said Donaldson “kind of drives me crazy” but added: “The people who have threatened him today couldn’t lace his boots.”
Commentators who have followed Donaldson’s political career since the 1980s regarded the speech as the strongest of his DUP leadership. But some warned it also risked being his last, should the party officer vote go against him.
“He knows the numbers could be tight when the DUP has to make a decision on this deal,” said Alex Kane, a former communications chief for the rival Ulster Unionist Party. “Did he think it might be the last big political speech he will give as leader of the DUP?
“Because if it goes belly-up in a couple weeks’ time, if he asks the party to accept this deal and they don’t, he will have to stand down.”