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23 June 2021

First job for Jeffrey Donaldson: Tackle the Northern Ireland Protocol

Can the new DUP leader make the Westminster government listen? 

By Stephen Bush

If at first you don’t succeed: Jeffrey Donaldson has been elected as the DUP’s next leader and will in short order be its nominee for first minister. Donaldson, who had been defeated by Edwin Poots a little under a month ago, is now leader-designate following the collapse of Poots’s 21-day leadership.

It represents something of a counter-revolution: Donaldson, like Arlene Foster, is a defector from the UUP and is a relative moderate within the DUP. His ascent to the leadership also poses something of a challenge for the new leader of Donaldson’s old party, Doug Beattie: he has attracted a number of high-profile recruits since taking office, but it isn’t clear if he can retain and entrench those gains with a more moderate (again, relatively speaking) DUP leader.  

Donaldson, like Foster and Poots, starts with one political objective above all: to rewrite the Northern Ireland Protocol. Part of that involves impressing upon the European Union the need for flexibility, and it will be hoped that his more conciliatory approach to talking to and about the Irish government compared to Poots will assist with that. But the other part involves ending the dialogue of the deaf between Northern Ireland’s unionist parties and the Westminster government.  

The British government’s preferred “fixes” to the protocol all, for better or for worse, give greater flexibility to big businesses: so that a Tesco in Belfast sells the same goods as one in London. Of course, that’s a bit of a mirage, in that no two Tescos are precisely alike in any case. The protocol’s real political problem is what it means for smaller businesses, in that it heavily incentivises family firms and small enterprises to expand north-south into the Republic of Ireland and not west-east into Britain. That economic reality adds to the demographic pressures on unionism, and it’s that aspect of the protocol that causes real political difficulty for the DUP.  

[see also: What should we expect from Jeffrey Donaldson as DUP leader?]

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