Donaldson: the Patron Saint of Defective Defectors?

9 06 2009
The way they were... DT and JD

The way they were... DT and JD


Am amazed by the DUP campaign. Diane Dodds was the public face of it. But she wasn’t responsible for setting strategy, striking the messages, drafting up the lines to take – she didn’t brief the press, or brief herself before that disastrous Politics Show interview etc etc.

Who wrote script for that campaign?

Step forward… Director of Elections Jeffrey Donaldson! There will be lots to come out in the post mortem, but I submit in Jeffrey’s defence that he may have been trying to implement lessons from history.

Firstly, consider that this was the first NI-wide election following the new devolved deal. Having moved quite some distance beyond its manifesto/historic position, as DUP campaign chief Jeffrey found himself in the cockpit of an election where he must reassure an unsettled support base.

So he drew upon what he knew, which must include his own history within the UUP. He saw how riven and broken the UUP had become when it made the fateful decisions on power-sharing. Jeffrey also saw from the UUP how dangerous it was to go too far beyond your voter base. Jeffrey no doubt recalled how Trimble, as the leader of Unionism, failed to listen to his objections during that unsettling transition into devolved politics (and how it cost the UUP electorally).

Both Jeffrey and Trimble directed the campaigns of lead Unionist parties with devolved politics bedding down/in transition, and both were faced with a hardcore of right-wing opposition. Faced with similar challenges/objectives/dilemmas, the 2009 Euro election was Jeffrey’s Trimble moment. He needed to consolidate his support base. But  like Trimble, he too produced a fundamentally confused campaign that craved toughness but which achieved little more than demonstrate low self-confidence, low aspiration and low self-belief.

I suspect Jeffrey so fixated on consolidating that he over-compensated, and this is largley because he doesn’t know the DUP electorate. His view of the DUP voter profile seems locked into the moment when he left to join the party in 2004. All that 5-0/don’t let themmuns top the poll stuff was a caricature;  the ghost of DUP past.

[From this election we can also see what UUP campaigning/messaging/tone/theme might have looked like had they listened to Jeffrey in the early Noughties. Where would the UUP be? Where might we all be if Unionist parties produced such campaigns?]

There’s something of the Greek tragedy here in so far as Jeffrey’s personal history compelled him towards self-destruction. He left a UUP that detached itself from its base only to join a party that was in danger of detaching itself from its support base. So Jeffrey responded by producing a heartland campaign (that had no serious clue where its heartland now is).

But whatever Jeffrey’s motives, this election campaign has seen: their all-but-vanquished rivals (UCU) announce proudly that ‘they’re back’; has haemorraged DUP voters (no quota for the candidate); and far from slaying its nemesis has instead seen Allister entrenched (possibly in North Antrim).

Ah, what the heck, let’s extend this bonfire of analogies: this was an ‘Astroturf’ election – the DUP played on fake grassroots. And as Director of Elections, Jeffrey is most responsible for that. He must come forward with some public explanations as part the Party’s conversation with the electorate. Why was the timbre of this campaign so antithetical to the DUP’s needs? Is he such a safe pair of hands? What else should he/shouldn’t he be trusted with? Now forever Beyond the Pale for the UUP, how accepted/acceptable is within the DUP right now?

The complicated political journey that saw Jeffrey direct the worst, least effective DUP campaign I can remember must make him a tragic hero for in-betweeners, a Political Pyrrhus, the Patron Saint of Defective Defectors. It ought to have been otherwise.

PS. Just to continue that Trimble motif a little further, can there be anything in the rumour that Jeffrey Donaldson has made an approach to (follow Trimble) into the Conservatives? Baron Donaldson anyone? Yes, no?

I also hear the UUP may have outpolled the DUP in Lagan Valley. Does this sound right? Funny the things you hear.




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