Voices: The ‘Dysfunctional Unionist Party’ is in trouble again

If you want an example of the caprice of politics, go back four years to when Keir Starmer was poised to take over the leadership of a Labour Party that was 26 points behind in the opinion polls.

Or go back five years this week to when Michael Gove was briefly the betting favourite to be the next leader of the Conservative Party and therefore prime minister.

Or that same week, and the two years before it, when the Democratic Unionist Party was in a quasi-coalition government with Theresa May, able to extract billions of pounds for public services in Northern Ireland.

From such a pinnacle of power, the DUP has in irregular steps descended to today’s reduced circumstances. The party is in a poor state to deal with the unexpected departure of its leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who has resigned after being charged with historical sexual offences. He denies the charges.

The DUP has always prided itself on the toughness of its negotiating skills. But the truth, in hindsight, is that it was always going to be easy to drive a hard bargain when it held the balance of power in a hung parliament. That is an arithmetical fluke that does not come along very often – ask the Liberal Democrats – and it could be argued that the DUP failed to get as much out of its opportunity as it should have done.

Above all, it mishandled Brexit. The DUP should have voted for May’s Brexit deal, which would have kept the UK in a customs union with the EU and minimised the border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The DUP’s eight MPs would not have been enough to save May’s deal but Labour MPs should have voted for it too, and if the eight had done so, maybe more Labour MPs would have joined them. Instead, the DUP fell for Boris Johnson, who came to its party conference and told delegates what they wanted to hear – that they could have a hard Brexit and no border checks within the UK.

After Johnson won the election and the UK left the EU, the DUP was left with no leverage in the House of Commons when it discovered that it had been sold down the Irish Sea. It brought down the power-sharing government in Belfast in an attempt to force Johnson to renegotiate the Brexit deal but ended up losing ground in the Northern Ireland Assembly election that followed in 2022.

The DUP lost support to its left and right at the same time, while the centrist Alliance party and the Traditional Unionist Voice, which opposes power-sharing in principle, gained, allowing Sinn Fein to become the largest party. The latest opinion poll, last month, suggests that the same will happen in the general election later this year.

Yet it seemed that Jeffrey Donaldson had rescued something from the wreckage after Johnson left office. First, Rishi Sunak succeeded in reopening the Brexit deal – something the EU had said it would never do – and secured the Windsor Framework, which solved most of the practical problems caused by Johnson’s spatchcock negotiation. It wasn’t perfect but it was about the best that could be done without a customs union. The DUP didn’t like it but Donaldson repeated the same heroic manoeuvre as David Trimble and Ian Paisley Sr before him, of a former unionist hardliner leading the main body of unionism to another historic compromise.

Thus, he led his party back into a power-sharing government in Belfast last month. It was more difficult than before because this time, Sinn Fein took the post of first minister while the DUP took that of deputy first minister. Constitutionally, the two offices are of equal status but the symbolism of the title “first minister” going to Sinn Fein has been hard for some unionists to bear.

Nevertheless, the combination of Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Fein first minister, and Emma Little-Pengelly, the DUP deputy, has worked well in its first eight weeks, and the DUP will come under intense external pressure to keep it. Gavin Robinson, the DUP deputy leader who became interim leader on Friday, supports power-sharing and hopes to replace Donaldson without a contest.

But the internal politics of the DUP, called the “Dysfunctional Unionist Party” by Sam McBride, the Belfast Telegraph columnist, work in mysterious ways. Given that Donaldson’s opponents in the party claim that he persuaded the DUP to endorse a return to power-sharing only by manipulation of procedure, it seems likely that Robinson will face a leadership challenge. A source from the anti-Donaldson wing of the party was quoted yesterday as saying that his departure meant it was “time to take back control”.

Robinson has a sharp incentive to get this right. If he can hold onto the leadership, he will then need to hold onto his East Belfast seat in the general election. His is the most marginal of the DUP’s eight seats, with a majority of only 1,800 votes over Naomi Long, the leader of Alliance, last time.

The most important legacy of Donaldson’s leadership is not just the restoration of devolved government, but that the DUP appeared to have chosen to fight for the votes of moderate unionists on the centre ground rather than to try to appease indefinitely the latest and most obdurate iteration of the “Ulster Says No” tendency.

By the end of this year, we will know whether Gavin Robinson is winning that fight.