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Leader in waiting: We profile the DUP's Nigel Dodds

By Alex Kane

Published 21/11/2015

Nigel Dodds
Nigel Dodds

He has a curiously low public profile and steers clear of publicity and controversy, but Nigel Dodds is the hot favourite to succeed Peter Robinson for a reason: he is old school DUP, with the right blend of pragmatism and calmness the party now requires.

For someone who is currently hot favourite - indeed, he probably won't even be challenged for the post - to succeed Peter Robinson as leader of the DUP, Nigel Dodds has a curiously low public profile.

He doesn't pop up on the Nolan Show or Talkback very often, tends to avoid what a former Ulster Unionist MLA describes as the "ya-boo-sucks approach to politics" and is generally regarded as a "safe and serious pair of hands". One DUP colleague says of him: "Nigel has always had a hangdog look about him, but he's up there with Robinson as one of the best political brains and strategists in our party. He got involved at a time when being a member of the DUP - the Paisley party - was not considered as the smartest political career move for a barrister with a Cambridge background."

But while he clearly doesn't court publicity or controversy in the way that Gregory Campbell and Sammy Wilson do, it would be a mistake to assume that Dodds is on the liberal wing of the DUP. He isn't. He still takes a hard line when it comes to Sinn Fein. At the end of August, he said: "People in Northern Ireland possibly could see the end of devolution - not as a result of the actions of politicians, but as a result of Sinn Fein's involvement with the IRA and IRA personnel's involvement with murder. The actions should be clear - exclude Sinn Fein, the republican movement, or else we are in a very dire situation. The Secretary of State must recognise that action must be taken to ensure that government in Northern Ireland only consists of those who are committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means."

And yet, when the recent Paramilitary Assessment Panel concluded that the structures of the Provisional IRA remain in existence and that, "PIRA members believe that the Provisional Army Council oversees both PIRA and Sinn Fein with an overarching strategy", Dodds didn't raise any objection - in public at least - to the end of the DUP's in/out strategy and a return to 'business as usual' with Sinn Fein in the Executive. In other words, it seems fair to conclude that he is fully behind Robinson's pragmatic approach to the 'Sinn Fein/IRA problem' and also supportive of the new Fresh Start agreement.

That loyalty to Robinson - he describes him as "a great personal friend to me and Diane" - will have been one of the deciding factors in Robinson's decision to finally step aside. It is inconceivable that Robinson and the DUP's key figures would have signed off on Fresh Start if Dodds hadn't given it his imprimatur. Dodds is too important to be isolated and far too big an internal hitter to be left unhappy with any major decision.

Robinson needs him on board. He is old school DUP -unlike people like Arlene Foster, Simon Hamilton and Jonathan Bell - and still has clout with those who stuck by the party during the long, lean years when the DUP was the very poor relation. A veteran DUP member puts it like this: "Peter needs Nigel at this point. He needs Nigel to be leader. He needs Nigel to steady the nerves of those grassroots - more of them than you think - who are unsettled at the moment and looking over their shoulders at Nesbitt and Allister. He needs Nigel, along with Arlene, to keep the various wings of the party - the old and new, if you want to put it that way - together during the next Assembly election."

That election, due next May, is one of the most important the DUP has faced since 2001. For all their attempts to cover it up, there are internal tensions over the relationship with Sinn Fein and concerns that both the UUP and TUV could pick off a handful of seats. And there are further concerns that a small percentage of previous voters, unhappy with a perceived 'rollover' about returning to the Executive, may choose to stay at home. Robinson seized the crown in 2008 when the DUP was at the top of its game, but Dodds may be handed it at the very moment when it faces one of its most difficult electoral challenges.

Nigel Alexander Dodds was born in Londonderry on August 20, 1958. He has one sister, Gloria, who is a teacher. His father, Joe, had served in the Army during the 1950s, seeing service in Korea and Kenya, as well as a number of other places. He then became a customs officer and later joined the UDR in 1970, around the same time as the family moved to Enniskillen. His mother, Doreen, was a school dinner lady: "My parents worked really hard for the family, so that they could give their children opportunities they never had. They were humble people to whom I owe everything."

He was educated at Portora Royal School and then St John's College, Cambridge (1977-80), where he graduated with a First in Law. He returned to Belfast to study at the Institute of Professional Legal Studies at Queen's and was called to the Northern Ireland Bar. He met his future wife, Diane, at that time, when she was a History undergraduate. They now have two children: "A son who is a solicitor and a daughter who is still at university. Our middle boy, Andrew, passed away aged eight in 1998. We are also grandparents. We believe strongly in God's providence - doors open and close along life's journey, which guide us in the direction God would have us go."

The main direction, of course, was political. "I became interested in politics when I was at Portora. Dad (who later became a DUP member and councillor in Fermanagh) was not involved politically at that time, so there was no real family background in politics. But I got involved with the DUP in that 1980-81 period at Queen's. It was the time of the hunger strikes and the murder of Robert Bradford MP and I believed that the DUP, rather than the UUP, was addressing the urgency of the security situation and political crisis. I was offered a job in the European Parliament secretariat with Ian Paisley in 1983 and at that point politics overcame the attraction of the law."

Since then, he has steadily and successfully climbed what Peter Robinson has recently described as the "greasy pole". Member of Belfast City Council (youngest ever Mayor in 1988 and serving again in 1992) from 1985-97; DUP general secretary from 1993-2008; MLA for North Belfast (including spells as minister for Social Development, Enterprise and then Finance) from 1997-2010; MP for North Belfast since 2001; and DUP deputy leader from 2008. The next obvious rung is party leader, because the post of First Minister would require a return to the Assembly.

Dodds is not a colourful, controversial or even high media presence figure.

In other words, he's precisely what the DUP needs at this point. He's thoughtful and mostly measured and exudes the sort of calmness that tends to soothe nerves and reassure bruised egos. He's a very good media performer, too and that will be important when Robinson steps down. Most important of all, however, is the fact that the 'old DUP' base trusts him and that will make a huge difference to the party at the next election.

How can he best be summed up? Not exciting (although hugely likeable), yet crucial to the DUP's future electoral success. You wouldn't see it on his face, but I suspect he'd settle for that assessment.

A life so far

Born in Londonderry in 1958

He has a First in Law from St John's College, Cambridge

He supports Everton and Northern Ireland

He was first elected for the DUP in 1985

He relaxes by watching police and crime drama

He is, almost certainly, the next leader of the DUP

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