Donaldson’s Dilemma: to lead or to follow?

The figures in today’s Lucid Talk poll for the Belfast Telegraph reveal the sheer scale of the challenge facing Jeffrey Donaldson. His initial reaction to the Windsor Framework was to avoid committing himself and to set up a mechanism – the panel of 8 chaired by Peter Robinson – which would permit him to delay a definitive response and spread responsibility for the final decision around the party.

But poll results suggest that time could be his enemy and that the moment calls for leadership not party management.

A large majority of DUP supporters do not like what they currently know about the Framework. 73% say they would vote against it if there were a referendum on the issue.

That will come as no news to the DUP leadership. What will give them pause is that only a half of DUP supporters (54%) want the party’s boycott of Stormont to continue.

So, his supporters are currently divided down the middle on what to do about the Framework, while a quarter of his party’s supporters would not even vote against it. The party is very conscious of the support it could, and did, lose to the TUV for not being seen as strong enough in its opposition to the Protocol. An equally large segment of its support could now be at risk if it takes an equally strong stance against the Framework.

Donaldson wants to avoid having to alienate either segment of his party’s voters. And there is a worst case scenario in which delay ends up upsetting both, with the party losing anti-Framework voters to the TUV at one end, while at the other the UUP, and even Alliance, take those who want Stormont restored.

This double danger could increase as long as the DUP position remains unclear. We can expect Jim Allister to campaign strongly against the Framework, while Alliance will argue the need for restored devolved government. In the absence of a firm line from the DUP these are the two positions that the public will hear and will be influenced by.

The importance of that influence should not be overlooked. Polls in the US and here in NI have shown that these days, along with social media, politicians and political parties are a major source of information for the public. More specifically many people look to “politicians they trust” for information on political issues. A recent Lucid Talk poll found that more people have a high level of trust in the TUV than in the DUP on the issue of the Protocol, while Naomi Long and Colum Eastwood were the most trusted overall.

The UUP will either adopt and amplify one of these positions or, if it too prevaricates, will have little influence on the debate (although that does not mean that they could not still achieve some electoral benefit.) 56% of UUP voters would back the Framework in a referendum.

A policy of delay has many attractions for Donaldson. The leadership hopes to avoid the party appearing split in advance of the May Council elections, it hopes that the political atmosphere will be calmer then (although the marching season will be imminent) and that the party would have four years to recover from any damage caused by its ultimate decision before another Assembly election.

Equally, by allowing others to shape the opinions of DUP supporters, it may deepen and reinforce the differences among supporters and members making an internal consensus more difficult or even impossible to achieve.

The other course open to Donaldson is to take a firm position of leadership. Nobody knows how deeply held are the views of the 73% of DUP supporters who say they would vote against the Agreement. A strong lead from the party leader while the Framework is still fresh would have some influence. If he (and the party leadership) wants the party to return to Stormont he does not have to convince them all to love the new agreement, what he needs to do is to convince most of them that it is good enough to permit the party to go back. He needs to argue strongly that the boycott has done its job and reduce the 54% who want it to continue the boycott down to under 30%. If he did that, many of the unconvinced 30% would stick with the party. It would be unrealistic to hope to immediately pull home those supporters who switched to the TUV. But he does not need to do so, as long as they are giving the DUP their second preferences he would have time to work on that later.

If he wants the party to maintain the boycott, he needs to convince the (almost) half of the party’s supporters who do not currently agree with him to change their minds – or else he risks losing a lot of votes in May. Again, a lot of those people would stick with the party despite their misgivings if they are given a good reason to do so.

Drift or decision? Both courses are dangerous but only one allows the party leader to lead.


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