The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
A Man for All Seasons?
Eamon Sweeney • 23 December 2003

Last weeks resignation by Jeffrey Donaldson from the UUP is not at all surprising, what was a surprise is that it took him so long. Citing the abandonment of principle by the UUP as the main reason for falling on his sword, Donaldson at once began the face saving spin that would have have been at least a lot harder, if not impossible after his certain forthcoming expulsion at the start of 2004.

The ultimatum offered to Donaldson and his dissenting colleagues of coming back into the partyline or face expulsion, was one which was obviously mooted to present the rebel with a stark choice. It illustrated that his last chance to wrest the reigns of power from Trimble was effectively gone and that if he continued to refuse to supplicate himself before the master, he would face increasing alienation and opprobrium. It is not beyond imagination to suggest for example that after his fits of petulance that de-selection in the next Westminster election would have become a reality, purely on the grounds that if had no qualms about refusing the Westminster whip already he would readily continue to pull such stunts again as, if it achieved little else, it did deflect a great deal of focus from where the UUP leadership needed it to be in the run up to their defeat in the recent assembly elections. Party disunity more than any other form of political intrigue will attract great press attention, Donaldson knew this and eagerly played his hand with that card in it. That it has apparently turned out to be a losing hand was part of the gamble that he made.

The intrigue of this particular situation however is more than a question of taking chances in an effort to oust the incumbent leader of a party. It is a question of whether his adventures to try and oust his leader was an issue of a genuine adherence to traditional stoic Unionist intransigence or an exercise in pure lust for the leadership post.

There are valid arguments for opting for each of these positions. For example Donaldson walked out of the Good Friday Agreement negotiations at the last minute. From that point onwards his real colours as a hardliner were firmly nailed to the mast. Last Friday’s UUP statement concerning Donaldson’s resignation however stated that in the GFA talks he was a “moderniser” meaning that even up to the last moment he was included in the team because he was considered to be a member wedded to the new idea of proper or at least more meaningful power sharing. The party statement continued simply by stating that straight after this point Donaldson had lost his way.

What exactly led Donaldson to walk out of the talks in 1998 has never been made precisely clear.

The usual speculation about cross border interference and the admittance of Sinn Fein into an assembly before full and total IRA disarmament are probably very near the truth. It does not account however for Jeffrey Donaldson’s deep seated dislike of nationalism and republicanism in general. For this particular reasoning Donaldson’s personal experiences reveal why he holds the beliefs and opinions, especially with regard to the early release of prisoners. This was because his cousin was a RUC member killed by the IRA.

This also explains his constant and highly vocal criticism of the change of the RUC name and the proposed abolition of the RIR. He had for example criticised the release of those jailed for killing Lord Mountbatten as being premature. At that point these men had been incarcerated for almost two decades.

Given that Donaldson’s background has very heavy indicators why he should have always been regarded as a hardliner, and we must assume that people at executive level knew much of his thinking on these issues, it is somewhat difficult to surmise exactly why he was included in the senior negotiating team in 1998. There is of course a need in such circumstances to include a range of opinion within each party team, and undoubtedly this was part of it. Donaldson in comparitive terms is the equivalent of Martin Mc Guinness’s inclusion on the Sinn Fein squad. These are the hawkish elements the flip side of which could be the juxtaposition of Mitchell Mc Laughlin and Dermott Nesbitt. However given Donaldson’s walk out in 1998 and the subsequent vigour of his attacks not only on the UUP but Trimble himself, there must have been a desire within Donaldson himself to get onto to the talks team in 1998, if only to keep his profile raised and put himself in a position of primacy just in case things had actually worked in Trimble’s favour and any positions of power were to be doled out. By failing to disguise his distaste for the compromises reached with republicans and nationalism in the talks and the handling of these issues by the UUP leader Donaldson had in effect marked out the path to a stormy future within the party’s ranks. He is firmly cut from the mould of Molyneaux, Taylor and indeed his former mentor Enoch Powell.

He had become the immovable voice of official Unionism, consistently refusing to compromise or accommodate other traditions.

Donaldson was an early convert to the UUP cause. Still in his teens when he joined Young Unionist Movement, as early as 1983 he was appointed Enoch Powell’s election agent and had entered the failed assembly of that era as one of the youngest members. He then went onto chair the Ulster Young Unionist Council in 1985 and 1986, notably in a period of great Unionist opposition to the Anglo-Irish accord of 1985. Regarded as a rising star he was selected as a Westminster candidate and has held the Lagan Valley seat since 1997.

Donaldson’s walkout in 1998 had initially sparked fears of a major UUP split that never actually materialised. His walkout saw the UUP barring him from standing in the assembly elections at that point. At this stage Donaldson had begun to gather enough support against Trimble that by 1999 he had to go on the record to deny he was mounting a direct leadership challenge.

The following two Ulster Unionist Council meetings in 2000 over participation in the devolved assembly were widely regarded as a battle between Trimble and Donaldson, and the swing towards the DUP in the 2001 general election only heightened speculation about a further direct show down. The subsequent further eleven UUC meetings at no point saw a direct leadership challenge from Donaldson, although party divisions were by then cemented into the UUP. Preferring to snipe from the stands as opposed to laying down the gauntlet also contributed heavily to his eventual UUP demise. He was also careful to remain within the fold long enough and also use the assembly election as a shield against expulsion before he was resoundingly elected in November. Therefore is he a traitor to those UUP voters who thought he would remain a UUP member and voted for him on that basis? That is an argument that will run and run. Donaldson needed the UUP to get elected to any future assembly, he also needed the UUP to be totally obliterated in electoral terms to justify any last tilt he may have felt like making at the leadership. It did not happen and the last chance disappeared.

Donaldson has been warmly invited into the bosom of the DUP. That he will join them in the new year is not really assured. Yet, the DUP is something of a natural home for him at the moment. Born a Presbyterian in 1962 he is not adverse to the overtly religious overtones imbued within Paisley’s political vehicle. However there was pre-election derision from the DUP, most notably, from Peter Weir who decried Donaldson, Burnside and Smith for standing as UUP candidates when he contended that Trimble was on the ropes and the unholy trinity should have been there helping to finish him off. This was either as I have already suggested, a touch of the Machiavellian coming out in Donaldson precipitating his electoral survival or indeed a desire to still see the UUP do well in the elections, despite his misgivings. After all a man who has been a stalwart for twenty years would have difficulties in abandoning his post. His issue is not with the UUP but with the leadership direction of Trimble and the abject failure to countenance sharing power with nationalists of any shade.

When all is said and done however Donaldson’s resignation is a massive blow to the UUP.

Despite the fact that he never really had the courage of his convictions in going toe to toe with Trimble, in electoral terms he has dealt a savage uppercut to the chin of the UUP itself.

He has taken Arlene Foster and Norah Beare with him and if they join the DUP it means that it will take their seats to 33, nine seats ahead of the UUP. There can be no by-election in these cases, there are no provisions for this in the assembly rules. Besides, the likelihood of any UUP candidate wanting to take on a proven vote winner in his own back yard is extremely doubtful.

Even avid Trimble-ites like David Mc Narry are giving the UUP leader a guaranteed future life span of merely another three months until the UUP annual general meeting in March. Therefore it may be worth finding a bookie prepared to offer odds on a Donaldson come back at UUP top level by late spring 2004. In the interim period figures such as Martyn Smyth and David Burnside will be there to check and reshaping of the party that Trimble has in mind after eventually getting rid of his nemesis. Only time will now tell if Jeffrey Donaldson is indeed a man of solid Unionist stonewalling or a failed pragmatist who craves high office above high principles. I suspect that the former is the more accurate, however this being the case his principles are DUP principles and have no place in the nascent UUP of Trimble, for the time being at least.






 

 

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Index: Current Articles



8 January 2004

 

Other Articles From This Issue:

 

A Man for All Seasons?
Eamon Sweeney

 

"A Means to Fight Back"
Marian Price

 

Tame Bulls in the China Shop
Anthony McIntyre

 

The Rising of the Moon: the language of power
Liam O Ruairc

 

Limerick Feud Denial

Óglaigh na hÉireann

 

Selective Memory
Michael Youlton

 

A Free Press in Iraq?
Mick Hall

 

Robert Zoellick and Wise Blood - The Hazel Motes Approach to International Trade
Toni Solo

 

Christmas Greetings 2003
Annie Higgins

 

The Close of the Year 2003 - The Belfast SWP
Davy Carlin

 

4 January 2004

 

Bam
Anthony McIntyre

 

New Years Statement 2004

Óglaigh na hÉireann

 

New Year Greetings
Jimmy Sands

 

In Memorium
Brian Mór

 

Is This The Real IRA?
Liam O Ruairc

 

Dec. 16th Dail Questions

Transcript

 

Provos/SDLP/Dublin Securing Partition
Liam O Comain

 

The Patriot Game
Kathleen O Halloran

 

Wiping Out the Opposition
Aine Fox

 

They Will Never Get Us All
Sean Matthews

 

The Letters Page has been updated.

 

 

 

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