With his serious demeanour and calm tone, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson looks nothing like a risk taker — let alone a political high-wire artist.
But the Democratic Unionist party leader’s threat to pull his ministers out of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive as early as this month if the Brexit Irish Sea customs border remains is a potentially career-crashing gamble as London and Brussels edge closer to a trade war.
The stakes will intensify this week when the EU publishes its proposals for making customs checks more agile.
Donaldson, a former soldier and leader of what for the past two decades has been the largest party defending the region’s place as part of the UK, is at the centre of the battle over the so-called Northern Ireland protocol that he says is diminishing two centuries of sovereign ties.
The compromise agreed by London and Brussels keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods after Brexit, but at the cost of creating customs checks between the region and Great Britain.
Donaldson, a member of the UK parliament who became DUP leader at the end of June and has his sights set on leading Northern Ireland as first minister after an election due in May, said the deal was “flawed”.
Brussels is expected on Wednesday to publish proposals that include scrapping many Irish Sea customs checks. But Donaldson, who has offered scant alternatives beyond the use of enhanced technology, said that would still be insufficient.
“If unionist ministers are being expected to implement a protocol that is harmful to our place within the United Kingdom, we simply will not do that,” he told the Financial Times. “The Irish Sea border must go.”
His own ambitions to become Northern Ireland’s first minister look equally challenging. In order to replace Paul Givan, a more junior party colleague, he must not only be elected to the region’s assembly, but also reverse the DUP’s plummeting support.
With the party polling in fourth place, many are puzzled by Donaldson’s threat to pull the plug on the executive by withdrawing his ministers because, as things stand, the Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin is expected to cruise to victory.
“Pulling down the executive could be his dying act, but I think he’ll do it,” said one unionist figure who asked not to be named.
His 40 years in politics and passion for hillwalking have taught Donaldson, 58, the perils of putting a foot wrong. But the Formula One fanatic has driven headlong into controversy before, and survived.
He said the murder of a cousin — the first Northern Irish police officer blown up in the region’s three-decades-long Troubles — propelled him aged 18 into both politics and the British army’s Ulster Defence Regiment.
As a member of the more moderate Ulster Unionist party, which he left in 2003, he took part in negotiations to end the sectarian strife.
But he publicly ripped up a document outlining a framework for peace in January 1998 and, angry that the release of prisoners was not linked to weapons surrender, walked out of the UUP’s delegation on the day the landmark Good Friday Agreement was concluded three months later.
“I’m a tough negotiator,” he said. “I’m not going to buy something that I think isn’t fit for purpose.”
The Good Friday accord brought peace in part by committing unionists and republicans to sharing power.
If the executive collapsed, Northern Ireland would be ruled directly from Westminster — as happened from 2017 to 2020 after Sinn Féin quit over an energy scandal. Elections would go ahead in May, but political bickering could delay the formation of a new executive well beyond that.
That would suit the DUP on one level by denying Sinn Féin, which polls show is the most popular party north and south of the Irish border, the chance to lead the executive if it won the election as expected.
But it would not help Donaldson achieve power unless the DUP leader, first elected to Northern Ireland’s Assembly at 22 before becoming an MP, could defy current predictions and carry the party to victory.
Donaldson swats that aside, preferring, with the fluency that won him prizes as a schoolboy debater, to focus on the need to get “solutions to the problems that others have created”.
A military history buff who followed family members into the Orange Order, a Protestant British loyalist organisation known for its marches, Donaldson called the Irish Sea border “an existential threat to our place within the UK”.
“If ever there was a time for a unionist leader to say: ‘up with this we will not put’, it is now,” he said, claiming his ultimatum has yielded results. London has threatened to trigger Article 16 of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, which would suspend many of the protocol’s measures. That could lead Brussels to impose legal and trade sanctions on the UK.
But Donaldson was adamant: “The more deeply rooted this protocol becomes, the more harm it does to our economy, the more it separates us from Great Britain, the more damage it does . . . I’m simply not going to sit on my hands and allow Northern Ireland to be treated in this way.”
It is a calculated risk from a canny politician who analysts say hopes to prise support from the Traditional Unionist Voice party (TUV).
The one-time DUP splinter group, edged ahead of it in Northern Irish pollster Lucid Talk’s latest survey, pushing the region’s once dominant party into fourth place with 13 per cent support. Sinn Féin had 25 per cent.
“He is muscling in on hardline TUV turf, talking tough, but it’s a risky strategy as the protocol is here to stay,” said Deirdre Heenan, a professor of social policy at Ulster University.
Politicians, officials and business leaders say Donaldson is far from intransigent and not religion-driven. “He’s very different one-on-one from all this theatre,” said one Northern Irish businesswoman.
Still, “he needs a miracle to become first minister,” said Jon Tonge, politics professor at the University of Liverpool. “Jeffrey Donaldson may be the first minister that never was.”
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