Jeffrey Donaldson has been named as the next leader of the DUP. It emerged today that he was the only candidate to replace Edwin Poots, who announced his resignation following an internal party revolt last week.
Mr Donaldson was narrowly defeated in the previous party leadership contest won by Poots last month. He will become the party’s third leader in a matter of weeks, after Arlene Foster was ousted last month and replaced by Mr Poots.
From Lisburn, he is currently the MP for Lagan Valley, but is expected to take up the post of First Minister at Stormont, causing a by-election in his Westminster constituency.
Donaldson defected to the DUP from the UUP alongside Arlene Foster in 2003 in a protest over the Good Friday Agreement, and in 2016 was knighted by the Tories “for political service”.
In 2018 he threatened to sue journalists who linked him to a murky donation to the DUP’s Brexit campaign, in which he played a leading role.
Although an Orangeman and a Presbyterian who has expressed anti-Catholic views, he is seen as being on the ‘moderate’ wing of the DUP.
In his candidacy statement at the weekend, Donaldson surprisingly made no mention of Irish language legislation as a political obstacle, despite internal objections to a plan to legislate for the rights for Irish speakers having propelled him to become party leader.
He said his major focus is on Brexit checks at ports in the north of Ireland under the Irish Protocol of Britain’s Withdrawal Agreement.
“Make no mistake, this is the number one issue facing our country, our people and our place within the UK,” he said.
He repeated that sentiment in a statement following the confirmation that he is unopposed as the new DUP leder.
Donaldson claimed he has “the vision to unite Northern Ireland and heal the divisions of the past. We don’t move forward by ignoring our past but by remembering and learning.”
However, he also threatened the “stability” of the power-sharing institutions, and declared the Brexit Protocol had been “foisted” on the people of the North of Ireland.
“I will be speaking with the Prime Minister at the earliest opportunity to emphasise that it is not realistic to expect stability when every unionist representative in the devolved institutions opposes the Northern Ireland Protocol,” he said.
“The government and those who claim to be protectors of peace and stability must step up and deal with the Protocol in a manner which respects the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom.”
Meanwhile, departing DUP leader Edwin Poots said he was promised “very significant” changes to the Protocol by British Direct Ruler Brandon Lewis, in what he said would be a “significant win” for unionists.
Poots, who is considering a career outside politics following his removal as DUP leader, said today he had been given personal assurances on the matter by Brandon Lewis.
“We believe that there is a significant victory to be won on the protocol. I will hand over at the end of June (to the new DUP leader) and hopefully most of the work will actually be achieved by that stage and we can make those gains.”
Mr Poots also said he expected Irish language legislation as agreed under the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ agreement to be passed.
“Brandon Lewis has the power and the authority to [implement the cultural act] if he so wishes,” he said, adding: “We can oppose it but we all know its going to happen at Westminster.”
However, it is expected Sinn Féin will request details of any private commitments made by the British government on the Protocol before giving their agreement to install Donaldson as First Minister alongside Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill. Without Sinn Féin’s approval, the confirmation of the new First Minister cannot go ahead.
On Sunday, South Down MP Chris Hazzard said there was “no Sinn Féin shopping list” for the nominations to proceed, but added: “We will have no demands, other than that people are faithful to commitments and agreements that have been made.”