‘Watch over the next week or so as Sir Jeffrey Donaldson takes a sharp swerve to the right. In the four months since he threatened to bring down Stormont, he has hesitated to act. But he could be about to press the nuclear button.’
So began Suzanne Breen’s column in today’s Sunday Life.
Spooked by the LucidTalk poll last week that has them eight points behind Sinn Fein and only three ahead of the Ulster Unionists, will DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson really crash the devolved institutions in a bid to save his party’s skin?
It’s a bit rich to call it a strategy, but it does seem to be the game plan.
Here’s how it works.
Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, is given another few weeks to win further concessions from the EU over the Protocol, taking us to the end of February.
If, at that point, what is on offer fails to quell restive Unionists, (a racing certainty given the Protocol will be neither scrapped, nor substantially altered) then Donaldson makes good on his threats pull down the institutions in protest.
It’s a blunt instrument, and Donaldson will know that Unionists always reach for the boycott when they face a political reversal, only to eventually concede the point. The last half century is littered with similar defeats.
But here’s the thing.
He thinks he can have his cake and eat it. Drag down the institutions as a sop to Unionist ultras, without doing any lasting harm. Breaking things in a ‘specific and limited way,’ you might say.
I think Suzanne Breen is right.
Donaldson will be hoping that the spectacle is enough to stem DUP losses to the TUV. He has no intention of competing with Doug Beattie for ‘light orange’ Unionists. He does, however, calculate that he can win back ‘dark orange’ voters from Jim Allister.
Enough, certainly, to remain Unionist tog dog – that is Priority One – even if Priority Two – pipping Sinn Fein to top spot overall – is now a tall order.
There’s barely a month or so between the conclusion of talks between Truss and the European Commission’s vice president, Maroš Šefčovič, in late February, and the Notice of Election on March 24 (which suspends the assembly ahead of the May 6 elections).
A performative act, then, to get the DUP through the elections and then see how things look on the other side. But what does he do then?
I suspect he has no idea.
The minor crisis that will have been caused by collapsing the institutions will have paid off, in Donaldson’s calculation, if the DUP remains the main player on the Unionist side of the aisle.
If by some miracle, he manages to also beat Sinn Fein into second place, he will have scored a rare political victory and Donaldson will be first through the doors to get Stormont working again.
If they outpoll the TUV and UUP, but only manage second place, then it feeds into the DUP’s next problem: Nominating a Sinn Fein First Minister.
Problematic because it is so emblematic.
Donaldson will presumably want to distance himself by allowing Paul Givan to serve as deputy First Minister to Michelle O’Neill, but only after a period of hiatus.
This would allow a quick by-election in Donaldson’s Lagan Valley Westminster seat, if he opts to switch to Stormont, thus foregoing the wrath of paleo-Unionists like Allister for selling out.
As I say, none of this amounts to a much of a strategy, but desperate politicians like Donaldson opt for desperate measures.
Kevin Meagher is the author of ‘A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How it Will Come About,’ the second edition of which is published this week by Biteback