Ministerial office at last for defector Donaldson

Jeffrey Donaldson has waited a long time for ministerial office.

Jeffrey Donaldson has waited a long time for ministerial office.

Today it finally came after a political career spanning 23 years.

Raised in the fishing village of Kilkeel in Co Down as the eldest of five boys and three girls, like many of the politicians he has encountered his views were shaped by family tragedy.

His cousin Samuel Donaldson was one of the first policemen to be killed by an IRA booby-trap bomb in the south Armagh republican heartland of Crossmaglen during the Troubles in 1970.

Fifteen years later, the family suffered another loss when Samuel’s brother Alex was among nine Royal Ulster Constabulary officers killed in a mortar bomb attack on Newry police station.

“It was in part due to these events that I became politically aware from an early age,” he later admitted.

At the age of 16, like many of his relatives Jeffrey Donaldson joined the Protestant Orange Order and soon rose through the ranks of the Ulster Unionist Party’s youth wing.

His local MP was the legendary Enoch Powell who after quitting the Conservative Party in 1974, joined the Ulster Unionists and won a seat in South Down that year after rebuffing overtures from the National Front.

Jeffrey Donaldson cut his political teeth as Enoch Powell’s election agent between 1983 and 1986, successfully keeping the seat in unionist hands despite its nationalist majority.

In 1985, he became the youngest member of the rolling devolution Northern Ireland Assembly championed by Margaret Thatcher’s Government and her Secretary of State James Prior, capturing a seat in a by-election in South Down.

At the same time Mr Donaldson served as a personal assistant to the then leader of the UUP, James Molyneaux.

The Assembly, which was boycotted by the nationalist SDLP and Sinn Fein, only lasted one year and Mrs Thatcher went on to sign the Anglo Irish Agreement with the then Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald, much to the disapproval of unionists.

Under James Molyneaux’s leadership Jeffrey Donaldson continued to steadily rise through the ranks, serving as honorary secretary to the Ulster Unionist Council and eventually being elected as a party vice president.

The 1994 IRA ceasefire, however, changed things.

While his mentor made way for a new Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, Jeffrey Donaldson played an increasingly prominent role in the party – topping the poll in the Lagan Valley constituency in the 1996 elections for the Northern Ireland Forum which sat during the talks which led to the Good Friday Agreement.

In 1997 as Tony Blair’s Labour Government swept to power, Mr Donaldson became the MP for Lagan Valley and was being tipped as a future leader of the party.

When the Rev Ian Paisley’s rival Democratic Unionists and other hard-line unionists walked out of the Stormont talks after Sinn Fein was admitted, he remained in the negotiations as part of the Ulster Unionist delegation.

However the defining moment for his career within the Ulster Unionist Party came in the dying hours of the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement.

He and a number of other ’baby barristers’ in the party including Arlene Foster and Peter Weir walked out of the talks in protest at proposals to grant the early release of paramilitary prisoners and rename the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Jeffrey Donaldson became the public face of scepticism within the Ulster Unionists and fought a number of battles with David Trimble opposing his decision to share power with Sinn Fein even though the IRA retained its weapons.

The wrangling between them would become increasingly bitter and personal over the next six years and after he was elected to the Stormont Assembly in 2003 in an election which saw the DUP take over as the largest Northern Ireland party, it became apparent his Ulster Unionist career had reached the end of the road.

In December 2003, he quit the party along with his long time allies, the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Arlene Foster and fellow Lagan Valley MLA Norah Beare and defected to the DUP just weeks later.

The move was a crippling blow to the party where he had forged his career.

In the 2004 election, the DUP’s Jim Allister comfortably topped the Northern Ireland-wide European Parliament Election while the UUP struggled.

One year later in the General Election, the UUP was decimated with David Trimble losing his Upper Bann seat and the party being reduced to just one MP. David Trimble subsequently resigned.

In Westminster Jeffrey Donaldson served as the DUP’s defence and education spokesman but also played a key role in the negotiations with the British and Irish Governments and eventually Sinn Fein.

He strongly supported the St Andrews Agreement and the subsequent deal last March with Sinn Fein to form a power sharing government.

The Lagan Valley MP was considered to be in contention for a ministerial post in the run-up to devolution last May.

However, when they were handed out, he was instead given a seat on the Northern Ireland Policing Board and the chairmanship of a key Stormont committee tasked with institutional reform including the key issue of the transfer of policing and justice powers.

Jeffrey Donaldson’s standing in the DUP was further boosted when he was also made a member of the Privy Council alongside DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson.

Stormont sources nevertheless believed the 45-year-old MP would eventually feature in the Executive.

The resignation of junior minister Ian Paisley Junior has meant that opportunity has come sooner than he or they might have expected.

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