Sam McBride: From his 20s, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was seen as a future unionist leader – now might be his final chance

From his 20s, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was seen as a potential future leader of unionism. Yet he has never before stood for the leadership — and at 58, this might be his only chance.

Saturday, 8th May 2021, 7:04 am
Updated Saturday, 8th May 2021, 9:45 am

If this was a contest about poise, experience, presentability or who was the best media performer, Sir Jeffrey would have already won.

Once Enoch Powell’s political disciple (the former Tory MP attended his wedding) he is now on the moderate wing of unionism. He shares many of Arlene Foster’s views, but is immeasurably more polished and experienced.

Although only eight years older than Mrs Foster, Sir Jeffrey had been in frontline politics for 18 years when the now outgoing DUP leader first entered the assembly in 2003.

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Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, pictured in his office yesterday, is deeply pragmatic

In 1985 the Kilkeel-born Ulster Unionist became the youngest Assemblyman elected to Stormont. Twelve years later, he succeeded former Ulster Unionist leader Sir James Molyneaux as MP for Lagan Valley, a seat he has held ever since with resounding majorities.

Though now a senior parliamentarian and a knight of the realm, the young Jeffrey Donaldson knew hardship.

The eldest of eight children being brought up in a modest three-bedroom house, the future MP was a seven-year-old when his father came into the living room in August 1970 to say “I’ve just heard some dreadful news”.

The schoolboy’s cousin, 23-year-old policeman Sam Donaldson, had been blown apart in an explosion in Crossmaglen. He was the first RUC officer to be murdered by the IRA during the Troubles. But the Donaldsons remembered that they received wreaths from Crossmaglen.

Sir Jeffrey battled with David Trimble – but is now seen as a DUP moderate

Years later, as a senior Ulster Unionist 2002, the police would come to him with the news that the IRA had been storing information on his movements and there was a threat to his life.

Although intellectually capable, the young Jeffrey Donaldson left school at 16 and went to Belfast to find work in Hugh J Scott’s electrical engineering firm on Belfast’s Ravenhill Road where he would attempt to catch a glimpse of the Rev Ian Paisley at the front of his Martyrs’ Memorial church on a Sunday evening.

Brought up a Presbyterian, his minister urged him to become a minister – of religion, not government.

Not By Might, Sir Jeffrey’s authorised biography written by Noel Davidson in 2004, records that he gave this “serious consideration”. But the young UUP member demonstrated his persuasive qualities, winning over the cleric by telling him that, in his biographer’s words, “his idea was not to use [politics] as a vehicle for personal advancement, but as an avenue for upholding, and demonstrating, in a public and practical way, Christian values and beliefs”.

Sir Jeffrey’s opposition to the Belfast Agreement led to years of bitter spats with David Trimble and his allies before the Lagan Valley MP defected to the DUP on the same day as Arlene Foster in 2004.

But even in his UUP hardliner days, there were glimpses of the more accommodating politician Sir Jeffrey would become.

A declassified note of a private meeting which Sir Jeffrey and other senior Orangemen had with an NIO minister in 1996 described the UUP man as “the most progressive dinner guest”, noting his awareness of the need for the Orange to “win a PR victory” by compromising over Drumcree without appearing to be “humiliated”.

As inevitably happens with authorised biographies, Not By Might presents an idealised picture of the politician, saying that he concluded: “He would serve God first, and his country second,in whatever way the political arena would open up for him”.

But throughout his career, Sir Jeffrey has been more open than most politicians about the significance of his evangelical Protestant faith to how he approaches politics, right down to wearing the ichthys symbol of a fish – once a secret sign for Christ’s early followers. Thus, the impact of his faith means that in this area there is less to differentiate him from Mr Poots than some commentary over the last week would imply.

That is only one of many similarities between Sir Jeffrey and Mr Poots – both are Orangemen, both are socially conservative, both are deeply pragmatic, and both are committed to Stormont and sharing power with Sinn Féin.

Indeed, it is difficult to think of any major policy differences between the two men, meaning that this decision may be much more about how they would present their policies rather than the policies themselves – as well as how they would change the DUP’s now increasingly dysfunctional structures.

While less gaffe-prone than Mr Poots, Sir Jeffrey apologised when it was revealed that he had claimed £660 in public funds for hotel room service, including pay per view films. He said they were not adult films and that one had been The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

One of the dilemmas facing the new leader will be how to unite a party whose policy was founded in Free Presbyterian theology, but whose membership and supporters increasingly do not support those ideas in areas such as abortion or gay rights.

Someone who has known Sir Jeffrey in various settings for decades said that while he is personally socially conservative, the individual said that after 24 years in Westminster he has been “influenced by the liberalising of society led by or endorsed by Westminster”.

Writing in yesterday’s News Letter, former DUP leader Peter Robinson endorsed a move to allow DUP members to vote in line with the conscience on such issues – effectively the end of a DUP position on what he described as “moral issues”.

A socially conservative leader such as Sir Jeffrey or Mr Poots may be able to adopt such a policy easier than someone like Mrs Foster, who was seen as more personally liberal – in DUP terms – on some of these issues.

But in the absence of any open leadership debate, only DUP MLAs and MPs – who have been receiving personal calls from both candidates – will be able to ask such questions.

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