Jeffrey Donaldson’s first official speech as DUP leader was measured and low-key: no rabble-rousing to please those organising the recent anti-protocol meetings and no promises about things he knows are probably undeliverable.
Nothing about the Irish language, either, just a sentence about the DUP’s ongoing commitment to delivering the stuff contained in the New Decade, New Approach deal. It was exactly the sort of workmanlike, safe-pair-of-hands speech at which he excels.
But his opening comments about being “determined to unify” the party were overshadowed by Alex Easton’s resignation.
Easton may not be a big beast, but his departure means the DUP now has 26 ‘whipped’ MLAs to Sinn Fein’s 27.
It’s the sort of psychological blow and plain old-fashioned embarrassment no leader wants to deal with on his first day in the job.
The other thing Donaldson can’t know for certain is whether Easton is a lone wolf or if this is the start of the same sort of trickle of defections that accompanied Poots’ brief career as leader.
He will know, too — not least because of his experiences in the UUP — that apologising to members and supporters about how rubbish the party has looked over the past few months, while promising to renew, refresh and get back to business, is easier said than done.
His MLAs are worried about retaining their seats and party members and canvassers are probably already lining up their excuses for not being able to ‘go round the doors’ during the election campaign.
Unless he can find a way — and it must be about more, much more, than words — of settling and reassuring them fairly quickly, then his control of the party may never go beyond tenuous.
These are people who have grown used to winning elections and holding seats, yet right now they’re not even the largest party anymore.
He made a pitch to what he described as the “broad span of unionist opinion…making the DUP a warm home for everyone who supports the union…and not being dogmatic about issues that are not fundamental to the Union”.
But that pitch won’t resonate with the Loyalist Communities Council, the TUV, elements of the Loyal Orders and the unionist/loyalist coalition behind the ongoing anti-protocol rallies. They want to up the ante against the protocol, particularly after Wednesday’s ruling on the judicial review.
He also made a pitch to those who want to see closer cooperation within and across unionism and loyalism and spoke of a pan-unionist convention to build greater unity. The problem, of course, is that other unionist parties will see this as an attempt by the DUP to shore up its position as the top dog of unionism; while those who might be attracted by the idea of the DUP as a warm home probably wouldn’t be comfortable with those Donaldson wants to attract to the convention.
He is on safer ground with the proposal of a pro-union council, which could take a less party-political approach to bolstering the case for the union.
But what does he do about the enormous, pooping-all-over-the-place elephant in the room, the protocol?
What did he mean when he suggested there was some way to go to “reach an outcome we can live with”?
That line might be construed by some, including those trying to put huge pressure on the DUP, as an indication he will stop short of demanding the complete removal of the protocol.
That might please broader unionism, which doesn’t support instability, but it will be anathema to those who support Jim Allister’s view that you can have the protocol or the Good Friday Agreement, but not both.
Donaldson did appear to dismiss smaller unionist/loyalist vehicles and voices who have the luxury of being dogmatic, but he will be aware those voices and vehicles have an impact and that it’s the DUP which will probably take the electoral brunt of that impact.
So, can he find a way to assuage them and safeguard the Assembly, knowing that they would be happy enough to bring down the Assembly and the entire structures of the Good Friday Agreement?
Can he rely on Boris Johnson to ride to his rescue and haul unionism from what has been described as the “protocol quagmire”? Experience would suggest it would be a foolish expectation.
Can he pin his hopes on the Supreme Court reversing Wednesday’s ruling? Again, that’s a big risk. Can he contemplate a coming together of all of unionism/loyalism with an agreed strategy to resolve the protocol crisis? I wouldn’t put money on it.
It was a difficult first day for Donaldson: nothing catastrophic as such, but huge problems nonetheless. But as he said in the speech, “I believe in working through the in-tray.”