The DUP and its Decisions, Decisions ….

No matter how we look at it, or from what community perspective we look at it, the next few days are likely to be pivotal ones. I want to look at the next few days from an unapologetically pro-union perspective and what I think the DUP leader needs to do to secure the strongest possible outcome for unionism and for Northern Ireland.

It’s hard for anyone to argue that the DUP hasn’t had a decent few weeks. Whether by design or by accident. Its continued absence from Stormont has definitely led to an intensification of talks between HMG and the EU. Talks which seem inexorably leading to changes in policy over the protocol to a degree that SHOULD make it easy for them to return to Stormont with a sense of vindication. Also they took a risk by confronting the cynical (and frankly distasteful) exploitation by the other parties of the organ donation law changes. It looks like this risk has also played of with HMG taking the positive decision to legislate quickly from Westminster. For a small party these advances can be seen as pretty seismic victories, if the DUP membership can see them in that light. But this is why the next period will be so pivotal for the DUP. Well for Jeffrey Donaldson.

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.

The problem is that from the earliest days of Ian Paisley’s emergence, his followers and their successors have never been able to recognise a victory or make the best of one. The ultimate victory was the GFA but since then the DUP has consistently undermined the successes that flowed from that agreement to the point where other parties feel confident in calling on a daily basis for a review of the structures that would enable a government that excludes unionism. That will never happen but the fact that MLAs representing unionist areas feel free to say it indicates how alienated many unionist voters and ex voters have become from unionist politics.

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. Its 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.

Jeffrey aslo needs to overcome and abandon political unionism’s – and his own – penchant for being flattered and patted on the head by random, misfit Tories who have little positive clout where it matters. This dates back to his mentor Jim Molyneaux’s flirtations with the Monday Club back in the 1980s. That never yields positive results for us. Notr should he pay any heed to Boris Johnson’s unwanted and unhelpful interventions. Any unionist stupid (that’s the only appropriate word for it) enough to be yet again duped by this self serving chancer will never be forgiven by a population well ahead of its politicians on this matter.

I believe that Rishi Sunak is doing his level best to resolve this situation in the best interests onf the Union. I still believe the same was true of Theresa May. The DUP blatantly humiliated Theresa May. Such behaviour towards the UK Establishment always comes at a price. That price was the NI Protocol. If Jeffrey hasn’t learned that by now and if he allows himself to be bullied into a repetition with another Prime Minister the response may be a damaging and irreversible one for the pro-union community.

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.

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.

Jeffrey has had a long career precisely because he has not been a risk taker. When in the UUP he always aligned himself very closely to the leader at the time. He wasn’t prepared to risk endorsing the GFA, but equally he wasn’t prepared to defect until the DUP was finally established as unionism’s biggest party, five years after the Agreement was signed. He hasn’t been a public dissenter within the DUP, perhaps understandably given the suspicions they would have of any UUP defector. So there is no evidence to suggest Jeffrey will make the big call this week.

But he can. If he has the courage to try. He will never be in a stronger position to make his mark for the union. Unlike his party colleagues, Jeffrey has been careful about his public image. He has never said or done anything that rendered him ridiculous. He is not a figure of fun or contempt like Wilson, Paisley Junior or Campbell. That’s a help.

I have never voted DUP and it would take a lot for that to change. But I wish Jeffrey well over the next few days. If he does take the leap I think he’ll be surprised at just how well it plays in the broad pro union community.


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