The new DUP leader will enjoy goodwill but he has big challenges ahead

News Letter editorial of Wednesday June 23 2021:

Wednesday, 23rd June 2021, 9:04 am
Updated Wednesday, 23rd June 2021, 9:06 am
News Letter editorial

The DUP was until this year a party that valued stability in its leadership, having only had three leaders in 50 years.

That tradition was shattered by the way in which Edwin Poots toppled Arlene Foster, and was then toppled himself within weeks.

Jeffrey Donaldson has now been elected leader. Sir Jeffrey’s response to the preceding turmoil was a lesson in how to accept defeat graciously (as he did after he narrowly lost to Mr Poots), then not do anything rash. No-one who loses out in any sort of contest can be sure what will become of the victor.

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The Lagan Valley MP is popular in Westminster and admired by people across the political spectrum at home. He takes up his new post with much goodwill behind him.

But Sir Jeffrey already has a full in-tray.

His first challenge is navigating a move from Westminster politics to Stormont. The details on this are not yet clear, but if Sir Jeffrey enters the assembly he will have to quit as MP. That will entail a tricky by-election if the UUP revives and takes votes from the DUP in a seat with a three-way split.

The greater challenge though is the Irish language and the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Sir Jeffrey made comments yesterday that, like Mr Poots, seemed to confirm his commitment to Stormont and power-sharing. Then he said that he will be telling the prime minister that it is “not realistic to expect stability when every unionist representative in the devolved institutions opposes the Northern Ireland Protocol”.

That is a welcome warning, but vague.

The Irish language deadline must go. The DUP should not accept a cynical linkage to the nomination of a first minister.

But even more important, Sir Jeffrey’s next task will be to make clear to the Tories that his party means it when it says the protocol must also go. Modifications are not enough and merely disguise the partial repeal of the Act of Union. It would be a sad day if the lead unionist party in NI was to accept that.

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Alistair Bushe