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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 July, 2003, 08:57 GMT 09:57 UK
Profile: Jeffrey Donaldson

By Gareth Gordon
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

Jeffrey Donaldson has always had a touch of the theatrical about him.

In 1976, while a pupil at Kilkeel High School in County Down, he appeared in a production of Oliver - as the Artful Dodger.

It is a role he has adapted for the political stage many times since.

He rarely fluffs his lines, his timing is acute - he has even overcome the handicap of, in some people's eyes, resembling the singer Daniel O'Donnell.

Jeffrey Donaldson's early life shaped his political career
Jeffrey Donaldson's early life shaped his political career
And now he claims to speak for half the Ulster Unionist Party.

The problem for him is that the other half speak of him with a venom reserved for no-one else inside or outside the party.

Those early days in the Kilkeel area gave the young Donaldson something else - a fervent opposition to republicanism.

A cousin, Samuel Donaldson, was one of the first policemen murdered by the IRA, in August 1970.

Samuel's brother Alex was one of nine police officers killed in a mortar bomb attack on Newry RUC Station in 1985.

By then, Mr Donaldson was already an aspiring politician - in 1983 he became agent to the MP for South Down, Enoch Powell - and two years later he was the youngest member elected to the Stormont Assembly.

He was already personal assistant to the then Ulster Unionist leader Jim Molyneaux, and this political relationship endures to this day.

Those early days in the Kilkeel area gave the young Donaldson something else - a fervent opposition to republicanism

Mr Molyneaux's retirement as MP for Lagan Valley in 1997 gave the UUP's rising star the chance to take the really big stage at Westminster.

Mr Donaldson would soon be on a collision course with new party leader David Trimble, which is still having dramatic ramifications for the party.

It had seemed an obvious liaison.

After all, both were thought of as hardliners with strong Orange Order credentials.

Mr Trimble had become leader on the back of his role at Drumcree - at a time when Mr Donaldson was Assistant Grand Master.

At first they worked closely together, in particular in helping to draft elements of the Belfast Agreement.

But just before it was signed on Good Friday in 1998, he very publicly walked away from Castle Buildings.

He could not accept Prime Minister Tony Blair's assurances over paramilitary decommissioning, but to some it looked like betrayal.

They were never close again, but Mr Trimble had his revenge when he prevented Mr Donaldson from running in the subsequent Assembly elections.

UUP leader David Trimble
Mr Donaldson has not been close to Mr Trimble since 1998
It was an act which the MP for Lagan Valley never forgave.

From that point on, he was on the outside.

That may have been just where Mr Trimble wanted him, but he became the de facto spokesman for Ulster Unionists opposed to sharing power with Sinn Fein before IRA weapons had been handed over.

From the moment Mr Trimble led his party into the Executive in December 1999, his nemesis, Mr Donaldson, probed every apparent weakness.

Mr Donaldson tried to clip his party leader's wings at one meeting of the ruling Ulster Unionist Council after another, without actually quite managing to win a single vote.

He has often been talked about as leader, though fatally, in some people's eyes, he has failed to mount a challenge - although he did back fellow dissident MP Martin Smyth in his failed leadership bid in March 2000.

In September 2002, the Ulster Unionist Council agreed its party's ministers would resign from the Executive the following January if the IRA had not given up violence for good.

Motion

It was a compromise motion reached by the Donaldson and Trimble camps to stave off another showdown, but it probably suited Mr Donaldson more than Mr Trimble.

In the end, it was made irrelevant by the emergence in October 2002 of an alleged republican spy ring at Stormont which led to the assembly's suspension.

For a while, a truce was called in the battle between Ulster Unionism's pro and anti-Agreement wings.

But hostilities resumed with the emergence of the joint declaration drawn up by the British and Irish governments as part of an attempt to restore devolution.

There was plenty for Mr Donaldson to seize upon - specifically plans for an International Monitoring Body to adjudicate on groups found to be in breach of the Agreement.

He and others within the party claimed this would give Dublin a say in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland.

Another Ulster Unionist Council was called for 16 June 2003.

This time, Mr Donaldson upped the pressure saying he would "consider his position" if the declaration was not rejected.

'Stalled' at invitation

He lost again - narrowly - and the political world waited to see what he would do.

There was a formal invitation to join the Democratic Unionist Party - but once again he stalled.

This time, however, he and fellow anti-Agreement MPs Martin Smyth and David Burnside appeared to surprise Mr Trimble by refusing to accept direction from the UUP in the Westminster parliament.

The leadership responded in kind.

The party officers formed a disciplinary committee which within 24 hours had surprised the three MPs by suspending them from the party.

It was an act, according to Mr Donaldson, worthy of Stalinist Russia or Communist China.

The MPs went to court and won a significant victory - the action was ruled unlawful.

The legal system had given them a victory so far denied to them by their party.

All along, Mr Donaldson continued to say it was about policy, not personality.

But more and more it looked like a fight to the political death between two men who shared little but a mutual antipathy.

That personality clash, and the failure of the Ulster Unionist Party to retain its dominant position in the assembly election has no doubt left the party less attractive to Mr Donaldson.

He recognises that Mr Trimble appears to have a grip on the party, no matter how narrow.

He's got an offer from the DUP to join its negotiating team, and even the party.

Since Mr Donaldson appears to be a politician who goes where the power is, the betting is he will take the party up on its offer.

While there was a time Mr Donaldson would have considered such a move anethema, the DUP's view of the Agreement seems to better suit his politics.

At the age of 40, Mr Donaldson may now have had to let go of his dream of being Ulster Unionist leader.

But he's unlikely to let go of his ambition to one day lead a realigned unionist grouping.

In the high stakes game of politics, the Artful Dodger has had to give in to David Trimble, but he hasn't left Mr Trimble with a great deck of cards either.




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