Why Jeffrey Donaldson Doesn’t Want A By-Election Now…

The dust hasn’t even begun to settle in the aftermath of what became an historic Assembly election. With the DUP barely making it to second place, squeezed between Sinn Fein as the largest party, and the Alliance Party more than doubling their seats. One thing that has been slightly overlooked in the wake of the election, and the DUP leader’s insistence that they won’t nominate Executive Ministers until the NI Protocol has been addressed, is the fact that Sir Jeffrey is now technically occupying both an Assembly seat, and his seat in Westminster. 

The rules for Cllrs are pretty clear cut in that as soon as a candidate who holds a Council seat is declared elected to another body (the Assembly, Westminster, Dail etc) they automatically vacate that seat, and their party has a short time in which to pick a replacement. The reverse is not a mirror image, however due to the Northern Ireland Act 2014, any MP that is returned to Stormont has eight days in which to vacate their Assembly seat, or be disqualified from being a Member of Parliament and triggering a by-election.

The British Government seemed to toy with the idea of temporarily reintroducing the legal option of dual mandates between Stormont and the NI Assembly, which caused ire amongst local parties, and was ultimately shelved unceremoniously (seemingly without the prior knowledge of the DUP). The practice is also outlawed in Wales, but remains legal in Scotland as the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Douglas Ross, is an MP and an MSP.

Dual mandates were almost intrinsically embedded into the political culture of Northern Ireland, with MPs, Cllrs, MLAs and even Executive Ministers holding two or more elected positions. For example, former First Minister Peter Robinson held the positions of Councillor on Castlereagh Borough Council, Member of Parliament for East Belfast, Assembly Member for East Belfast, and Minister for Regional Development.

We live in a new political reality now, where double jobbing is not only outlawed, but opposition to its reintroduction is part of most political party’s policy platforms. So let’s look at Lagan Valley, where the DUP Leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, holds the Westminster seat and one of the NI Assembly seats. Should Dondaldson vacate his Westminster seat and force a by-election in Lagan Valley, it would be a monumental risk with no guarantee that the DUP would be able to hold the seat.

 

The Alliance Party’s Sorcha Eastwood ran Sir Jeffrey close in December 2019, back when the DUP were still top dog at Stormont. A DUP majority of over nineteen thousand votes was reduced to just over six thousand between 2017 and 2019, with the Alliance vote swinging upwards by nearly eighteen percent. Even with the Ulster Unionist candidate, Robbie Butler MLA, coming a distant third to Eastwood, the DUP doesn’t seem to have the numbers to hold onto the seat without a Unionist unity candidate.


Now things are slightly different in 2022, given that the DUP garnered nearly thirty-five percent of first preference votes last Thursday in Lagan Valley, compared to forty-one percent in 2017 they are definitely on a downward trajectory. Now realistically, Unionists had a combined first preference tally of just over sixty-percent in Lagan Valley, compared to just over twenty-four percent of first preferences for Alliance. It would certainly be an uphill climb for Sorcha Eastwood, who would be the likely Alliance candidate, but not impossible.

Given that the electorate seemed to punish both the DUP and Sinn Fein at the 2019 general elections, presumably because of the dysfunction caused due to the lack of a sitting Executive, it would be foolish to think that the DUP’s refusal to form an Executive over the issue of the NI Protocol (which didn’t exactly shore up their vote, and in fact shifted it to the TUV) would do anything other than cause their support levels to plummet even further.

The safest option for Sir Jeffrey would be to allow the DUP to co-opt someone else into his newly elected Assembly seat and he could continue as DUP leader in Westminster, but that could be seen as slap in the face to his own electorate who gave him more first preference votes than any other Unionist candidate last week, and would prevent him from claiming the Deputy First Minister post (though with a Sinn Fein First Minister the optics of that would be less than kind to the DUP for their more hardline supporters).

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