Jeffrey Donaldson: ‘My return to Stormont shouldn’t cost a colleague a seat’
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s strategic return to NI Assembly politics won’t necessarily cost a party colleague their Stormont seat, the DUP MP has said.
Having replaced Lagan Valley MLA Edwin Poots as party leader in recent months, the constituency’s Member of Parliament now says he plans to “lead from the front” by standing in next year’s assembly election.
With former MLA Brenda Hale narrowly failing to retain her seat at the last election in 2017, when the number of MLAs in each constituency dropped from six to five, the DUP currently has two Lagan Valley representatives at Stormont – Edwin Poots and Paul Givan.
Sir Jeffrey said a third DUP seat is a realistic possibility as some of the issues this time around are very different from the time of the last assembly election campaign.
He said the party is also striving to “broaden the support base” under his leadership.
“I am seeking to broaden the support base of the DUP and therefore we are not focussing too much on demographics and much on getting our message right, and ensuring that we maximise the unionist vote.
“This is a crucially important election and some of the issues this time around will be different from what they were in previous elections – not least the whole question of the Irish Sea border,” he told the News Letter.
“We were just three or four hundred votes shy of three seats the last time, when Brenda Hale narrowly lost her seat to the SDLP. Certainly if we want to increase unionist representation at Stormont then we need to be targeting seats like that in Lagan Valley.”
The DUP leader said that as well as securing more support for his party, the “future of the Union depends on our ability to strengthen support for unionism,” in general.
“Whilst of course there will be a focus on local issues such as the recovery post-Covid, reform of the health service, investing in our education system and other public services, at the same time I think that much of the focus on the forthcoming assembly election will also be about Northern Ireland’s future and that is why I think it is essential that we run a strong campaign, to encourage people to come to vote, and to maximise the collective unionist vote, and ensure that the DUP defeats Sinn Fein in this election.”
He added: “I made clear when I was elected leader that it was my intention to lead the party into the assembly elections, and that I would be a candidate in those elections.
“That remains my intention, and it is important as leader that I lead from the front when it comes to what will probably be the most important election we have fought for many years.
“It is crucial that unionism collectively has a good election and that we endeavour to win more seats, and therefore that is why I am entering the fray – to try and ensure that we maximise the unionist vote, and that the number of unionist seats at Stormont.
“And of course I want the DUP to win the election.”
Commenting on who he would like to see succeed him as Lagan Valley MP, Sir Jeffrey said: “We haven’t turned out minds to anything like that at this stage because we are focussing very much on the issues at hand at present.
“That means removing the Irish Sea border and helping Northern Ireland recover from Covid.
“We will take those kind of decisions whenever they need to be taken.”
Speaking earlier on Tuesday, the DUP leader said the removal of a sitting MLA to facilitate his own seamless return to Stormont was never an option.
“The MLAs are elected by their constituents; you can’t just go to an MLA and say ‘It is time for you to step aside’.
“They have a mandate to continue in their role until the next assembly election and it is only in circumstances where, for personal reasons, they might wish to step down before the election that a vacancy might arise,” he told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme.
“My MLA team are fully behind me as leader and that is evident from the contacts I have had with them and the meetings we have had.”
He added: “Things have settled down within the party and we are now focused on the job at hand, which includes tackling the Northern Ireland Protocol, dealing with issues related to legacy of our troubled past.”
• One of the DUP leader’s unionist rivals for a Lagan Valley Stormont seat has played down the impact Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is likely to have on the next election outcome.
Robbie Butler, the Ulster Unionist deputy leader and Lagan Valley MLA, said the planned return of the high-profile MP to fight an assembly election will fail to fend off a resurgent UUP.
“Jeffrey Donaldson standing will make no difference to the plans we have in place,” he said.
“We narrowly missed out on that second seat [in 2017]. We have taken stock of that and learned lessons from it... so we are going into the election to win two seats.”
Mr Butler said the appointment of Doug Beattie as UUP leader in May this year has given his party a “Beattie bounce” factor that should carry into the next assembly election – whoever is leading the DUP or standing for Stormont.
“Whether it was Edwin [Poots] or Jeffrey [Donaldson], I don’t think it matters anymore,” he said.
“I think people have realised, and grown tired, or their inability to do anything different or anything meaningful.
“I have been with Doug around the country this last while and there is absolutely no doubt his ascension has been well-received, including in Lagan Valley.”
Commenting on the issues that have arisen since the last assembly election in 2017 – including Brexit, the Northern Ireland Protocol and the resulting Irish Sea border – Mr Butler said: “The problem for the DUP, and Jeffrey in particular, is that they presided over the delivery of a Tory hard Brexit.
“So people aren’t stupid and people know it for what it is. Regardless of whatever position they take on the protocol, they were party to the delivery of it.
“Nothing has changed my view that there is a second seat there for the Ulster Unionist Party [in Lagan Valley].”
Mr Butler said he regards Sir Jeffrey as having been the DUP’s strongest performer at Westminster.
However, he claims the unionist electorate “are now out of love with him,” and added: “I also think they have run out of patience with him and I don’t think it will go well for him this time.”
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