Donaldson resignation deepens cracks among Northern Ireland’s unionists

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Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s stunning downfall after being charged with “historical” sex offences has pitched Northern Ireland’s biggest pro-UK party into turmoil ahead of a general election.

Donaldson, who stepped down as DUP leader on Friday, said he would contest the charges. But that leaves Gavin Robinson, 39, the Democratic Unionist Party’s interim leader, grappling to hold together a shell-shocked party that was already bitterly divided over Brexit while fighting for his own survival as an MP.

“There’s certainly the potential for internal chaos but . . . there’s an imperative for the party to pull together because if it ends up in a kind of a civil war, the electoral consequences are big,” said Duncan Morrow, a lecturer in politics at Ulster University.

The DUP had long dominated Northern Irish politics until a defeat by the pro-Irish unity Sinn Féin in regional elections in 2022. The UK general election this year promises to be just as tough for the party, which has eight MPs.

“They were already worried about the potential of a split unionist vote,” said David McCann, an election analyst. “Now they’ll have to change their entire campaign strategy to hold as much ground as possible going into the Westminster election.”

Donaldson, who had led the DUP since 2021 after the resignation of Arlene Foster and a 21-day stint by Edwin Poots, spent the past two years doggedly pushing London to meet his party’s Brexit concerns.

That led him to pull the DUP out of the Stormont power-sharing assembly and executive in 2022, paralysing local politics, as he insisted Northern Ireland’s place as part of the UK was at stake.

After squeezing further concessions from the Westminster government, he ended his boycott in February and had been at the peak of his political powers when he was charged.

Robinson, a tall silver-haired barrister who became deputy leader only last year, played a significant role in Donaldson’s negotiating team in striking a “safeguarding the union” deal that secured Stormont’s return in February.

He is widely expected to face a big fight in his East Belfast constituency, where he has a slim majority, against Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party who held the seat from 2010-15.

“[Robinson] has got the DUP’s most vulnerable seat to fight, so he may not even have a parliamentary seat in a few months’ time,” said Jon Tonge, a politics professor at the University of Liverpool.

Another prominent party figure, Emma Little-Pengelly, is also under pressure. She serves as deputy first minister in the power-sharing executive at Stormont, after being drafted in by Donaldson despite not having been elected.

The manner of her appointment could leave her exposed if Donaldson’s post-Brexit trade deal with London — which has eased checks on goods entering the region from Britain and staying there — were to unravel. The agreement has already failed to convince party hardliners such as Sammy Wilson, who quit as chief whip at Westminster over it.

“There’s no doubt that the events of this week will galvanise anti-unionist parties who will see we’ve been weakened by this,” Wilson told local broadcaster Cool FM on Saturday. “There are divisions within unionism that are going to be difficult as well.”

Donaldson, who has represented Lagan Valley since 1997, has not said if he will resign as an MP but Ben Lowry, editor of unionist newspaper the News Letter, told BBC Radio Ulster a by-election could be “really disastrous for the DUP”.

Donaldson’s resignation as party leader comes at a difficult time for unionism in Northern Ireland, where the DUP has had to swallow its pride and serve beside a Sinn Féin first minister.

Protestants and unionists are now minorities in a region partitioned from the rest of the island in 1921. Sinn Féin is calling for a referendum on Irish unity within a decade.

A poll last month found the DUP trailing Sinn Féin by seven points. Support for the smaller Ulster Unionist Party has plunged while the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice is a fringe group. Together, all three have about 40 per cent support.

Donaldson’s humiliating exit was “another, further blow for unionism”, said Tonge. But “in the short term, there’s no chance of the DUP collapsing the [Stormont] institutions”.

DUP support for returning to Stormont was 60 per cent, according to a poll this month by the University of Liverpool and Tonge said a Stormont collapse would be “too risky electorally”.

But TUV leader Jim Allister said Donaldson’s exit “impacts unionism as a whole. This needs to be a cathartic moment.”

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