It is unusual, to put it mildly, for a political party’s leader to have attempted to leave and join its main rival a few months ago.
Imagine the claim that Boris Johnson had secretly met Sir Keir Starmer last summer to move across to Labour – or that Leo Varadkar had met Mary Lou McDonald with a view to joining Sinn Fein. Yet this is the allegation being made with increasing force about DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.
Last Wednesday, the Nolan Show revealed the claim that Sir Jeffrey had met Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie last summer to discuss switching parties.
When that claim was first put to the DUP leader by the BBC, he initially denied that he had ever had “any intention or plans to re-join the Ulster Unionist Party”.
However, in a later statement, Sir Jeffrey implicitly admitted that he had engaged in talks with the UUP but said that they were “focused on the future of unionism” and it was “nonsense” to suggest he was thinking of switching parties.
Until now, Mr Beattie has been silent on the situation, saying that he did not want to comment on it prior to Saturday’s funeral of DUP MLA Christopher Stalford.
However, this morning, he gave the Nolan Show an intriguing account of what had happened, while withholding key details and documentary evidence – for now.
The Ulster Unionist leader said that the contact began in early June when Sir Jeffrey was smarting from his unexpected defeat by Edwin Poots in the battle to replace Arlene Foster as DUP leader.
Across the modernising wing of the DUP, there was dismay. Some members had quit, while others were considering it.
Mr Beattie said he was told by someone close to Sir Jeffrey that he may wish to contact the Lagan Valley MP. The person was not an MLA or MP but was sufficiently close to him to view what was being said as being on behalf of Sir Jeffrey, he said.
Mr Beattie said he was told: “Jeffrey is not happy. It might be worth reaching in”. When he ‘reached in’ through a WhatsApp message telling Sir Jeffrey that he would be welcome to re-join the UUP, Sir Jeffrey did not say no, but agreed a time and a place to talk. “The thrust of his response was ‘we should chat’,” Mr Beattie said.
It was the Lagan Valley MP who wanted the meeting to be highly secret, Mr Beattie said – and he did not deny my colleague Allison Morris’s report that it was in an Army barracks.
He denied claims that the conversation was about the possibility of a new unionist party and added: “He discussed joining our party… it was a protracted meeting… he met me for over an hour – he wouldn’t have if he wasn’t interested”.
According to Mr Beattie, Sir Jeffrey did not in the end turn down the offer, but did not agree a date to join either, believing that it required several meetings – but those never happened because quickly Mr Poots’ leadership crumbled and Sir Jeffrey succeeded him as DUP leader.
Sir Jeffrey last week said that he had “respectfully declined” the offer, but Mr Beattie said that the offer had never been declined.
Crucially, Mr Beattie said that the evidence – in the form of text messages – of what happened would “stay private” unless others challenged his integrity. Referring to Sir Jeffrey’s statement last week that the claims were “nonsense”, he said that if people called him a liar, he said he would make everything public.
The gradual emergence of these claims is unwelcome for the DUP, prolonging the sense of a party divided. Strikingly, Mr Beattie said categorically that the news of the meeting did not emerge from the UUP, implying that it had come from within the DUP. That suggests continued ill-discipline in the party, a dangerous situation so near to a crucial election.
In conversations with me over the last few days, DUP members from both sides of the party have played down the significance of this story. Indeed, some in the party are furious at colleagues they believe to have leaked it.
The unionist instinct for unity in the face of a possible Sinn Fein First Minister is substantial and may blunt the electoral damage this might inflict in other circumstances.
But Sir Jeffrey is particularly vulnerable here on one front. He has not yet dealt with his Edwin Poots problem. In January, Mr Poots alleged he had been encouraged by Sir Jeffrey to put his name forward as a candidate in South Down (which Sir Jeffrey denied); Sammy Wilson then disparaged Mr Poots and said Sir Jeffrey had voted against him as a candidate in the selection process.
Mr Poots is fighting for his political career and attempting to overturn that decision when it comes to the DUP executive for ratification. It is now a month since the South Down selection and Sir Jeffrey has not yet called the executive meeting, which may imply fear of the outcome.
After the final floundering years of David Trimble’s leadership of unionism, the DUP established a reputation for ruthless professionalism.
Sir Jeffrey was part of that, becoming one of Northern Ireland’s most experienced and capable politicians. But increasingly his party is closer to the chaotic in-fighting and incoherence of the party he left – and allegedly considered re-joining.
When asked by the Belfast Telegraph if he stood over his statement from last week that the claims of him meeting Mr Beattie to discuss re-joining were “nonsense”, Sir Jeffrey said in a statement: “As I indicated last week, the BBC contacted me and tried to portray that I was about to leave the DUP and re-join the UUP last year. I stand by my characterisation of that claim as nonsense.
“I have been quite open about the fact that I was approached. I met Doug Beattie at a venue of his choosing. At that meeting, Doug reiterated his desire that I consider membership of his party and we also discussed issues about the future of unionism.
“On the issue of re-joining, matters went no further as I determined that I was not re-joining the UUP.
“I will continue to engage with unionists from across all parties and work towards achieving greater cooperation and working on the issues which really matter to people.”