For a small man, Jeffrey Donaldson can create a huge amount of trouble. All
those stormy Ulster Unionist executive meetings. The endless UUC Saturday
morning gatherings when Fermanagh farmers would have preferred to stay in
their fields and the rest of us in our beds.
Now, they're over, and the party can return to being as boring as it was
before. The UUP does boring very well - although the SDLP still manages to
do it better.
The grey men in grey suits will once again be uninterrupted at the annual
conference. Polite applause will emanate from those delegates who have
For decades, the UUP and the SDLP were the smug constitutionals. They grew
fat and lazy. "Vote for us because we're a nice middle-class bunch who
don't murder people," was effectively the SDLP mantra.
Forget about building a future leadership or grassroots organisation. Local
people knew an election was approaching when SDLP advice centres finally
The party's response to the Sinn Féin challenge showed its bourgeois
It opted for gimmicks, internal reviews, and even more professional
advisers. The result was disastrous. The SDLP is now effectively finished
which isn't good for democracy within nationalism.
The UUP's crisis isn't so extreme but it's still significant. Donaldson's
defection makes the DUP the largest unionist party at Westminster.
In the Assembly, it has 33 seats to the UUP's 24. But there's more to this
than numbers. The DUP is now a mainstream party.
Donaldson is the epitome of the traditional, middle-of-the-road unionist.
He isn't the type to march up mountains or lambast line-dancing. If the DUP
can attract him, it can appeal to virtually any unionist. Donaldson's
defection also strengthens the modernising elements in a party moving from
the far- to centre-right.
Although some fundamentals remain. A social function in Sixmilecross
welcomed Arlene Foster and others into their new party. "We're having
cocktails," confided a guest. But it's still the sausage-on-the-stick - not
the vodka martini variety - at DUP hooleys.
Politically, the DUP has room to manoeuvre. Like Sinn Féin, it faces no
militant opposition from within its own community. Dissident republicans
have failed to mount a political challenge to Gerry Adams and Martin
Bob McCartney's UK Unionist Party, which might have been a threat to the
DUP, is a shadow of its former self. But despite the DUP's softer language
and image, it's firmly anti-Agreement.
So are a significant majority of unionists. David Trimble's problem was
really never Jeffrey Donaldson - it was what and whom he represented. The
UUP isn't alone in refusing to face reality.
Both governments seem to wish the DUP and its voters would simply "wise up"
and accept the Agreement. We keep hearing how 70% of the population
That's true. But the unfortunate reality for the Agreement's architects is
that THEY instigated a system which requires the support of a majority in
Bertie Ahern is foolish to suggest even considering a change of the Stormont
rules. That would totally undermine the Agreement's credibility.
Sooner or later, there must be serious political engagement with the DUP.
Insisting no alternative exists to the Agreement isn't enough. Community
groups and professional organisations might revere the devolved institutions
but there isn't the same affection among ordinary citizens.
Just how upset would the majority of unionists be with Direct Rule
continuing, even with a dollop of Dublin interference? Most would prefer it
to Martin McGuinness running their schools.
And that's the dilemma for the governments. What to do about those who
don't believe a deal with Sinn Féin is better than no deal at all.