Speech by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP

In East Belfast on Thursday morning, DUP Leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP has outlined his vision for the party and Northern Ireland.

I stand before you this morning, humbled by your support, honoured to be your leader and determined to unify our party.

No one ever said that politics was predictable, and a few months ago I would not have expected to be standing here today.

Much less did I imagine when I was first elected to a Northern Ireland Assembly over thirty-five years ago that one day I would be set to return as its First Minister.

But politics is not about being in office, it is about doing something with that office, and I want to use all the experience, skill and support at my disposal to help make Northern Ireland a better place and to secure our position within the United Kingdom.

I want to make the case for Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom at home and abroad confident in our convictions and capable of delivering a positive message.

In this new role and with the responsibility that has been entrusted to me, I want to take the opportunity to set out my vision for our party and our country, building on the success and achievements of those who have gone before me.

I want to explain how I will seek to renew and revitalise unionism not just for the next few months but for the next quarter century, the strategy we will follow and the principles that will guide us.

Despite the difficulties that we face I am confident that if we set our strategy and chart our course, there is a clear path to safer ground and to better times.

But that is a goal that can only be achieved by all of us working together to an agreed strategy and a shared plan - by working together to build a team of all of the talents within this party and beyond and by working together to restore and regain the trust of the electorate.

Members, you have given me your support and I will give you my word that I will never take it for granted.

I know that this party works best when we operate, not as individuals but as a team.

I will never forget that I am the servant of this party and not its master.

And when we succeed, we will do so together.

But first we must plan, for we have a job of work to do.

Over the coming months this party will be guided by five core objectives.

To remove the Irish Sea border’s pernicious impact on our trading and constitutional position,

… to make sure that devolution is placed on a stable and sustainable basis,

… to prioritise our health service and our economy as we emerge from this pandemic,

… to broaden and deepen the support for Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and

… to listen to voices from right across Northern Ireland in shaping our future strategy.

But before I set out my plans in more detail, I want to say a few words about recent events.

I think that we can all agree that the last few months have not been the proudest in the history of the DUP.

When we should have been focussed on the needs of wider society, we have been consumed with the internal politics of the party.

At times, I know we have strained the patience not just of the public but of our own supporters as well.

As the new leader of the DUP, I want to apologise to our supporters and to the public for that.

More importantly I want to draw a line under it and to move on.

The challenges that lie ahead are great and we cannot afford to be diverted or distracted from the task before us.

Now it is time to get back to business and to focus on the future for there is important work to be done.

Yesterday you honoured me by making me your leader and inviting me to lead Northern Ireland to a better place.

My vision for unionism is a simple, positive and modern one.

I believe in Northern Ireland and its people.

I believe that Northern Ireland is best served by being part of the United Kingdom and that our four nations of the UK are together stronger than their constituent parts.

In support of that Union, I want us to build a better Northern Ireland, not just for those who share our unionism, but for all our people.

I want to build the broadest coalition of support for that vision from right across the community.

A coalition which includes those of us whose support for the Union is based on a cultural, social and historic affinity with Great Britain and those whose support is grounded more in reason and realism of what is in the best interests for them and their families.

For me unionism should have no barriers to entry beyond a belief that Northern Ireland is best served as a part of the UK.

While I celebrate the past and our many achievements, my unionism does not hanker on returning back to a bygone age but forward to a new era.

It is defined by what we are for, not what we are against. And it is not limited to the boundaries of Northern Ireland but includes the whole of our United Kingdom.

That is why in my leadership campaign manifesto I proposed the creation of a formal coalition for the Union inclusive of all four countries and their regions and an annual conference to promote pro Union ideas, research and relationships.

I believe in the United Kingdom because I believe it is best placed to improve the lives of all of our citizens, because of the economic stability that it brings, because of the National Health Service and because it alone will preserve and protect our way of life.

I believe that when unionism is united it is at its strongest and I believe that a pan unionist convention can be the vehicle to build practical and strategic unity.

That does not mean that all unionists will agree on every issue but that we can find common cause in a unity of purpose on the matters that unite us, where we can unite behind a shared vision and values that are open and welcoming.

But mere words are not enough.

We have heard them many times before.

This time we must translate this common cause into action to establish a new pro Union campaigning group that can harness the talents of those who are in political parties and those who are not.

In recent years too often unionism has been on the back foot in the constitutional battle with a nationalism that is already planning and preparing for the future.

Now we must do likewise.

We cannot afford to sleepwalk into a border poll that others have spent many years preparing for.

We must not simply seek to defend Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom, we must also become persuaders for the Union in word and in deed.

Rather than wait until it is too late this is the time to work to make sure that the conditions for a border poll are never satisfied.

Those who believe that a united Ireland is around the corner are wrong, for if we make the right choices now, we can secure the Union for generations to come.

But that means being prepared to face up to new realities and adapting to new circumstances.

Northern Ireland in 2021 is not the same as Northern Ireland a hundred years ago.

Even the past decade has seen considerable changes.

Today, we are a much richer and more diverse community strengthened not just by those who were born and have grown up here but by those who have come here to make their lives.

In this our centenary year we should pause to reflect on the events of the last century and ask how we renew the Union for the next hundred years and be ready for the challenges that lie ahead.

Because 50% + 1 is no basis for a stable society I want to make sure that there is not just a technical majority but a clear and convincing majority for our position in the United Kingdom.

And we must be prepared to take decisions that make this aspiration a reality.

It means we must learn to respect each other’s cultural differences and traditions and that must be a two-way process.

It means we must be prepared to reform our health service and invest in it to ensure that our National Health Service is the envy of the world.

And it means we must be prepared to take the necessary steps to build a shared and united community where everyone can feel at home.

While we cannot be complacent about matters which go to the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom neither can we afford to be dogmatic about matters which are not fundamental to the quality of the Union.

One of the first things that I want to do in the next few months is to get out and meet the people of Northern Ireland.

Leadership means being prepared to lead, but it also means being prepared to listen.

I know that there is a job to be done to rebuild trust and confidence with the people we represent.

I want to share my vision for the future, and as importantly, I want to hear what others have to say.

I want to hear the voices not just of those who speak the loudest but those who make up the fabric of our society.

I will want to speak directly to our party supporters right across the Province and to reconnect with grass roots unionists and loyalists.

But I will also want to speak with representatives from across civic society from church leaders to business representatives and from the community and voluntary sector.

I will also reach out the hand of friendship to those who have not been natural supporters of the DUP but who deserve to have their voices heard in the new Northern Ireland we are building.

Today we are focussing on our long-term plans, but we cannot ignore the short-term difficulties either.

The Northern Ireland protocol represents the greatest threat to the economic integrity of the United Kingdom in any of our lifetimes.

The Irish Sea Border is not just a threat to the economic integrity of the United Kingdom; it is a threat to the living standards of the people of Northern Ireland and the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom.

In the weeks ahead our goal is to remove the Irish Sea border and to preserve and protect the internal UK market.

This is the route to restoring the constitutional balance that was achieved by the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements and it is the only path to stable and sustainable government in Northern Ireland.

This is not the time to talk up a crisis or to unnecessarily raise the temperature but let me assure you that the government understands our position and they know what needs to be done. I have, in recent days, held a series of meetings on the Protocol, including meetings with the Secretary of State and Lord Frost. While the government is undoubtedly now accepting the case that the Protocol is unsustainable and unacceptable there is still some way to go to reach an outcome that we can live with. I intend to keep in constant contact on these issues to ensure the unionist case is heard where it needs to be heard.

I say not to warn but to remind, neither the government nor anyone else should doubt the resolve of this party or the unionist community to ensure matters relating to the NI Protocol are brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

Let me also make it clear that if the government stands over its commitments, we will not be found wanting in delivering on ours.

The New Decade, New Approach Agreement, for all of its flaws, was the basis for the restoration of Stormont in 2020 and it remains so today.

In the year that Northern Ireland celebrates its hundredth anniversary the DUP marks 50 years since its inception.

I have inherited the leadership of a party that has moved from protest to power and from a party of opposition to a party of government and I want to pay tribute to all those who have made this party what it is today.

Dr Paisley formed this party and led it to the pinnacle of political achievement, Peter Robinson more than anyone shaped the party and its rise to power, Arlene Foster secured some of the party’s best election results and though Edwin’s time as leader has been short, he has always served this party with honour and distinction.

I want to build on all their achievement in a way which meets the needs of this time.

I am acutely aware that there is a job of rebuilding relationships and reconnecting with our voters to be done.

After some tumultuous months it is time to restore some order and stability and to focus on delivering good government for those we represent.

I want to see us engage with other parties in a constructive manner, to work together to deliver for all those who elected us and to help change the tone of engagement in Northern Ireland’s politics.

As President Kennedy reminded us sixty years ago, “Civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.”

As Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party for almost twenty years we must refresh and renew as well if we are to continue to win.

It is that process of renewal that has ensured our success and that of Northern Ireland in the past and will do so in the future.

This moment of transition from one leadership to the next once again offers us the opportunity to revisit and realign our policies in light of our guiding principles.

It allows us to ensure that our policies still reflect our enduring values in this second century of Northern Ireland’s history.

No one living a hundred years ago could have begun to understand the threat of climate change to our way of life or the opportunities that new technology might bring.

And the pace of social change this past decade cannot be ignored by those who wish to represent a majority of the people who live here.

At a time when there is no evidence that a majority of people in Northern Ireland would wish to change our constitutional status, unionist parties are failing to secure a majority of votes in Province-wide elections.

This should serve as a ‘wake up’ call to all unionist parties and a clear sign of where there is considerable room for expansion.

I don’t expect this party will ever be able to win the support of every unionist voter, but we must make it a warm house for those who share our vision on the Union from whatever background they may come.

Colleagues, today this party enters a new era.

Circumstances have changed but our core goals remain.

The political challenges that we presently face are of a different order and a different magnitude than we have faced for many years.

We know we can prevail because we have come through trials and tribulations in the past and we can do so again but that will only happen with a unity of purpose.

It will only happen if we focus on the future, if we are prepared to take decisions which are in the long-term interests of Northern Ireland.

As Northern Ireland’s largest party we will only succeed if we can span the broad range of unionist opinion.

We do not have the luxury of retreating to the comfort of the fringes of politics.

The party needs to have its anchor securely in the mainstream of unionism and on the common ground of Northern Ireland politics.

While smaller unionist parties can afford to target elements of the unionist electorate, we cannot afford to marginalise ourselves with policies that apply to the few and not the many.

I want us to be the party of Northern Ireland and the party for Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.

A party for those of us who value a strong economy, high quality public services and a party that can once again restore a sense of stability and security to Northern Ireland.

I want us to rebuild relationships that have been strained and restore a level of confidence across the community.

The outcome of the next Assembly election will be a defining moment for Northern Ireland.

Make no mistake there are those who will treat next year's Assembly election as a referendum on a border poll that would plunge Northern Ireland into division and instability at a time when we need to be building a stable and united community.

More than ever unionists and those who care about peace and stability must come together to resist this threat.

Mr Chairman, the challenges before us have never been greater but the future of the Union and of Northern Ireland rests upon our shoulders.

One hundred years ago this month King George opened our new Parliament and referred to, “a new era of peace, contentment and good will.”

Let those words be our cause today.

Let us work to unite not just this party or unionism but all of Northern Ireland so the future can be better than the past and we can fulfil our potential in a peaceful and stable society and in a place we can all call home.

For if we do that, this party will succeed, but more importantly the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will long endure.

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