JUST when the largest unionist party should have been celebrating the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament, the final panel fell off the DUP clown car and Edwin Poots honked his final sad honk.
And into the circus ring has stepped Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the man Mr Poots narrowly defeated to begin his farcical 21-day reign. The consensus seems to be that Mr Donaldson is a serious operator who will usher in a much-needed period of calm and stability. But then we look at the headlines and see briefings being given to credible journalists by sources close to the leader-in-waiting to the effect that i) he’s willing and able to pull the political institutions down and ii) he has no intention of pulling them down.
And a simple choice faces him: To wade deeper into the mire of confrontation and division over the twin challenges of the Irish Language Act and the Protocol, or to devise a strategy that recognises the inevitability of an Irish Language Act and the impossibility of killing the Protocol, all while keeping the hardliners on board.
We have no way of knowing whether these sources are legitimate or whether if they are legitimate they are attempting to throw Mr Donaldson’s political opponents off-balance. But as we have said, the journalists writing these stories are not renowned for relying on bogus sources. The fact remains, however, that even as Mr Donaldson prepares for his coronation, the nature and direction of his leadership at a time of political crisis are shrouded in confusion. That’s an ominous start for a man who has made a reputation for himself of being measured, straight and reasonable.
It’s just as likely, of course – perhaps even more so – that the competing narratives emerging from the Donaldson camp in relation to the future of power-sharing are designed to satisfy both sides of a broken DUP.
The party is in a state of ferment after the brutal ousting of Arlene Foster and the shambolic Poots coup, and with Sinn Féin having identified the new leadership’s difficulty as their opportunity, the deal struck between Michelle O’Neill and Secretary of State Brandon Lewis over the Irish Language Act has deepened the sense of rage and betrayal. With the month of July rapidly approaching, Mr Donaldson will take up the role of leader with the internal party landscape as febrile as any in the party’s 50-year history.
And a simple choice faces him: To wade deeper into the mire of confrontation and division over the twin challenges of the Irish Language Act and the Protocol, or to devise a strategy that recognises the inevitability of an Irish Language Act and the impossibility of killing the Protocol, all while keeping the hardliners on board. That would be a hard enough task at the best of times, but when it is no longer possible to identify the hardliners in a party so riven by confusion and panic, it becomes a particularly daunting ask.
Throw in the added headache of the new leader having to vacate his precarious Lagan Valley Westminster constituency in order to elbow his way into the Executive and it’s clear Mr Donaldson faces a daunting set of circumstances – all of his party’s own making. If he was to start off by acknowledging that simple truth it would be a big help – not least to himself.