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Donaldson says he won't challenge Arlene Foster for DUP leadership


Sir Jeffrey Donaldson held his seat in Lagan Valley
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson held his seat in Lagan Valley
Ciaran Barnes

By Ciaran Barnes

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has ruled out challenging for the leadership of the DUP in the wake of the party's disastrous Westminster election that saw it lose two high-profile MPs.

Several influential figures have been highly critical of Arlene Foster following the poll which saw the DUP's overall vote share fall by 5% and embarrassing defeats for Nigel Dodds, Emma Little-Pengelly and Alex Easton.

They have tipped Sir Jeffrey as the next leader, arguing that a change at the top is necessary ahead of fresh Assembly elections which could take place on March 5.

But the veteran Lagan Valley MP, who held on to his seat with a reduced majority, told Sunday Life last night that he is not interested in a direct leadership challenge.

"There is absolutely no vacancy. The party is entirely focused on the talks on Monday and getting Stormont back up and running," said Sir Jeffrey.

"Arlene will be there leading our team. I and others will be there to support the negotiations and that's our number one priority."

Speculation about Sir Jeffrey's leadership intentions increased after a post-election interview with the BBC during which he refused to back his party leader Arlene Foster.

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Arlene Foster

But he now seems to have rowed back on that position, saying: "I'm very happy doing what I do and being part of a DUP team.

"We are very disappointed to lose Nigel and Emma. They made a huge contribution to our team at Westminster, but we're getting down to the task at hand as we have been given a strong mandate, and we will use that to best effect."

All-party talks to resume the Assembly which has been in lockdown for almost three years begin tomorrow.

While the negotiations occupy a significant part of DUP thinking, so, too, does the fallout from its dire Westminster election performance.

Senior party figures are dismayed with the party's losses in North Belfast and South Belfast, and failure to take North Down.

They are blaming negative campaigning and banners that were put up by loyalist paramilitaries in all three constituencies criticising the eventual winners of the seats - John Finucane, Claire Hanna and Stephen Farry.

One prominent DUP politician was scathing of the content, saying: "The UDA putting up those Finucane banners galvanised nationalists into voting for Sinn Fein in North Belfast.

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Senior DUP figures at the count centre

"Similar banners which went up in North Down and South Belfast had the same effect in going against us. It's no coincidence that we lost badly in the constituencies where they appeared and which we thought we had a very good chance of winning."

DUP insiders also played down suggestions that Nigel Dodds is set to retire from front line politics after being ousted by Sinn Fein's John Finucane as North Belfast MP.

They are adamant that a safe Assembly seat in Upper Bann, vacated by the constituency's new DUP MP Carla Lockhart, is his if he wants it.

Mr Dodds is yet to make a decision, with another option being granted a peerage and elevated to the House of Lords.

However, this is something that senior DUP strategists want to avoid as they believe the experienced 61-year-old has several years left at the forefront of the party.

The DUP is also desperate to keep Emma Little-Pengelly on board in the wake of her losing the South Belfast Westminster seat to the SDLP's Carmel Hanna.

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Emma Little-Pengelly

She has been suggested as a possible replacement for Carla Lockhart in Upper Bann.

But that would depend on first choice Nigel Dodds turning down the vacant MLA seat in the constituency.

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