Who is Sir Jeffrey Donaldson? A look at the incoming DUP leader

File photo dated 3/5/2021 of DUP MP for Lagan Valley Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who has confirmed he has submitted his name to become the next leader of the DUP. Issue date: Monday June 21, 2021.
File photo dated 3/5/2021 of DUP MP for Lagan Valley Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who has confirmed he has submitted his name to become the next leader of the DUP. Issue date: Monday June 21, 2021.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is set to take over after Edwin Poots' 21 days as DUP leader

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Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is set to become the next leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

On Monday, the Lagan Valley MP confirmed his intentions to enter the race for leadership of the party and, as expected, he does not face a challenger.

It comes after Edwin Poots submitted his resignation as DUP leader on Thursday evening, after only three weeks in the post, following internal divisions in the party. Nominations closed at midday on Tuesday, and he is set to be ratified by the DUP’s central executive committee on Saturday.

Of course, this is not Mr Donaldson's first attempt at becoming leader. Just over five weeks ago, he was narrowly defeated in the party's first ever leadership election.

Edwin Poots secured his victory as 19 of the 36 DUP MPs and MLAs in a contest that proved rather divisive for the party. During that contest, Jeffrey Donaldson was described as the 'moderate' and 'pragmatic' candidate - however some have been critical of this assessment.

DUP leader Arlene Foster, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds (left) and MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson leave 10 Downing Street in London after the party agreed a deal to support the minority Conservative government.
DUP leader Arlene Foster, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds (left) and MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson leave 10 Downing Street in London after the party agreed a deal to support the minority Conservative government.

Unlike Mr Poots, Jeffrey Donaldson has not been a lifelong member of the DUP. His political career began in the mid-1980s as an aide to Enoch Powell, the former Conservative MP who defected to the Ulster Unionist Party and served as the member for South Down from 1974 to 1987.

Mr Donaldson also served as personal assistant to the then-leader of the UUP, Jim Molyneaux and would go on to succeed him as the Member of Parliament for Lagan Valley upon Mr Molyneaux's retirement in 1997.

An anti-agreement unionist, he would prove to be a thorn in the side of then-party leader David Trimble following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and, along with Arlene Foster, defected to the DUP in 2004.

Since then, the Lagan Valley MP has risen the ranks in the party and gained a reputation in Westminster. He was appointed to the UK Privy Council in 2007 and awarded a knighthood in 2016 for political service.

DUP candidate for Lagan Valley Jeffrey Donaldson celebrates following his election at the Eikon Exhibition Centre in Lisburn as counting is under way for the General Election.
DUP candidate for Lagan Valley Jeffrey Donaldson celebrates following his election at the Eikon Exhibition Centre in Lisburn as counting is under way for the General Election.

As chief whip, he negotiated the £1 billion 'confidence and supply' agreement with the minority Conservative government in 2017, and he has also served as Westminster leader for the party since 2019. The question now - is whether Mr Donaldson will choose to lead from London or Stormont.

He has previously indicated that he would become First Minister if he became leader, however, should he give up his Westminster seat, a by-election would be triggered. The seat, however, might not be a safe one. While Mr Donaldson has proved popular, a new candidate could face tough competition from a revitalised Ulster Unionist Party and a popular Alliance Party, and risk losing the seat Jeffrey Donaldson has held for 24 years.

Another question surrounds where he would place himself in the Assembly. The two DUP Assembly members in his constituency of Lagan Valley are Edwin Poots and Paul Givan - who may be unwilling to step down for the Leader-designate.

Could it be that Mr Donaldson looks to 'Fermanagh and South Tyrone' - the home of former DUP leader Arlene Foster, who has expressed an interest in stepping away from local politics?

DUP leader Edwin Poots resigned after less than a month in charge.
DUP leader Edwin Poots resigned after less than a month in charge.

As well as this, Jeffrey Donaldson faces a list of difficult issues that require tackling. First will be the internal divisions within the party. Will he reach out the hand to the Poots camp - or will he promote his own team to ministerial and senior positions?

It is understood that Paul Givan has been urged to resign as First Minister when the new leader is in place, however Mr Givan has also since said that he would support Jeffrey Donaldson as leader.

Second will be the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is proving to be a highly contentious issue within certain sections of unionism and loyalism.

“Make no mistake, this is the number one issue facing our country, our people and our place within the United Kingdom,” he said in a statement on Monday.

Irish language legislation will also be on that list. It was central to Mr Poots' downfall last week, and local newspapers have reported that members of the Donaldson camp say he is willing to tear down Stormont over it.

If he did, and an election was called, would the risk pay off? A recent LucidTalk poll for the Belfast Telegraph showed the party's support had dropped to just 16% - while Sinn Féin has nine-point lead over them. All these questions will now be on the incoming leader's mind; however, he'll have to wait until he is ratified before he can start taking action.