Jeffrey Donaldson and Michelle O’Neill sat down with Rodney Edwards
Democratic Unionist leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is on a walkabout in Ballymoney in Co Antrim with colleagues Mervyn Storey, MLA, and Ian Paisley, MP.
He’s visiting shops, including one described as the “biggest retail business” in the area, in which he quips a paraphrased line from Father Ted — the one about Ireland’s biggest lingerie section.
But Donaldson hasn’t had much to laugh about recently: a bruising leadership election, colleagues who engaged in very public spats and leading a party that is looking over its shoulder not just at Sinn Féin but a more energised Ulster Unionist Party under Doug Beattie.
He is keen to one day be a First Minister for everyone, and on the united Ireland question, he wants to see a “United Kingdom” instead. But with the next election less than a year away, Donaldson accepts that not even unionism is united right now.
Sunday Independent: The DUP is 50 years old this year — and here we are sitting in a room named after Ian Paisley, with his picture behind you on the wall. Given the disruption within the DUP in recent months, do you finally feel like the leader now?
Jeffrey Donaldson: This weekend marks my first 100 days as leader of the party and in that time we’ve managed to achieve quite a bit. My first priority was to settle things down in the party and to heal the wounds from what has been a particularly bruising period for the party. We have a strong united team, that has reassured people, that has enabled me to move on to focus on the big political issues.
SI: Do you believe there will be a united Ireland?
JD: I certainly don’t believe there will be a united Ireland in my lifetime, I don’t believe there will be a united Ireland ever. I believe the case for the union is strong — but I believe unionism needs to do better. I think the more dysfunctional unionism appears, the weaker the case is. Therefore one of my priorities is to not only strengthen and build the DUP, but promote more cooperation between the unionist parties.
SI: But is it not fair to say that most unionists spend their time sniping at one another — DUP included?
JD: Yes, we have differences, but there is more that unites unionism than divides it, therefore practical cooperation is essential to ensure we have a strong voice for the union. I don’t lose any sleep over the prospect of there being a united Ireland and I don’t think that is something people in Northern Ireland are going to vote for.
SI: So what’s the alternative to a united Ireland? A new Ireland for all?
JD: The alternative to a united Ireland is a United Kingdom — and a United Kingdom that works for Northern Ireland. I believe the case for Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom is strong. Clearly, the protocol is harming our position in the union, I don’t think we need to be looking to an alternative to the United Kingdom.
SI: Would you engage with dissident republicans?
JD: I don’t believe for a moment that dissident republicans would listen to me, I think they might listen to people within the nationalist republican community. I would certainly encourage those strong voices that are against violence to be heard in that community, and they have been.
SI: Surely you have a responsibility
then to engage with loyalists who are engaging in paramilitarism?
JD: Where I have responsibility is to use my voice on the unionist side, to ensure those who claim to be unionists but who continue to engage in organised crime end paramilitarism — that they hear my voice loud and clear, that there is no place in modern Northern Ireland, and there never was, for that kind of organised criminality.
SI: But what are you doing about it?
JD: As a unionist leader I am very clear. I want to see a Northern Ireland that is liberated from the grip of paramilitarism and is freed from the terrible impact that terrorism has had here. That means we must all use our influence to rid that scourge from society, whether it comes from one side or the other.
SI: So would you talk to loyalists then, such as South East Antrim UDA?
JD: I will use my influence as best I can, where I believe that influence can be brought to bear, to see an end to the kind of criminality and paramilitarism that sadly has a grip on communities in parts of Northern Ireland.
SI: Nationalist and republican families want answers about the past, but so too do unionist families. There are many who want the British Government to answer questions about what happened to their loved ones. Will you support those families in that quest?
JD: Absolutely, yes. I have listened very carefully to what the government has said about their proposals. As someone who wants to see Northern Ireland move forward, I want to see the legacy issues dealt with. I don’t believe the path to reconciliation in Northern Ireland is made easier when we dispense with justice.
SI: But do you agree that the British government must give families the truth?
JD: I think everyone has a responsibility to play their part. There has been
far too much focus on the government and the state — and when you consider 90pc of the killings in the Troubles are attributable to paramilitary terrorist organisations, then I say in response to your question: should we not be hearing the truth from Sinn Féin? From the Provisional IRA movement? Should we not be hearing the truth from loyalist paramilitaries as well?
SI: Surely you accept that there are also questions for the British Government about the past?
JD: I think the truth is not something that can be partial — and if we are going to move Northern Ireland forward, if republicans want to demand truth from the state, then they too have a responsibility to step up to the mark and provide truth to the far greater number of victims that they created.
SI: But it’s not just nationalist families who want answers — it’s unionist families too. You realise that, yes?
JD: And a process that only focuses on the state is not a holistic approach to legacy, and will not deliver the kind of reconciliation that we need. It has to be an inclusive process, therefore it can’t just be a matter for the state to be required to tell the truth.
SI: Should the Irish Government step up too when it comes to the past?
JD: When I met the Taoiseach last week, I said the Irish Government has a responsibility to step up when it comes to legacy issues. And I have also made this clear to Simon Coveney on a number of occasions. This is not just a matter for the UK Government, there are many deaths that occurred in Northern Ireland that were carried out using the territory of the Republic of Ireland. I had a very keen and lengthy involvement with the Smithwick Tribunal. In my opinion the recommendations made by the Smithwick Tribunal have not been adequately followed through by the Irish Government.
SI: Tell me one thing you respect about Michelle O’Neill.
JD: I respect all politicians who are prepared to step forward and play their part in building a better Northern
Ireland, but I think we have to be forward-thinking. Sometimes it concerns me that some of the Sinn Féin leadership spend too much time dwelling on what has happened in the past.
SI: Do you understand why Sinn Féin have refused to go to this week’s event in Armagh?
JD: It saddens me to hear Sinn Féin denouncing the Irish Government for sending representatives to a cross-community service of reconciliation in Armagh. I think Sinn Féin missed a moment when they boycotted the Queen’s visit to Dublin, I think once again they are misjudging the mood of people who want to see Northern Ireland moving forward. Whilst I recognise that Michelle O’Neill is the person who has been chosen by Sinn Féin to lead them in the Northern Ireland Assembly I think real leadership means stepping out of your comfort zone. It means challenging yourself, as well as challenging others.
I don’t think we have seen enough of that from Sinn Féin.
SI: Have we seen enough of that from the DUP?
JD: My responsibility as a political leader is to move NI forward. I don’t agree with Sinn Féin on many things,
I don’t agree at all with their support for what the IRA did in the past, but I recognise they have been elected by the nationalist community and we have to work to try and build a better Northern Ireland. I still think we have a long way to go on that journey.
SI: When did you last cry?
JD: When my father passed away during the first wave of the pandemic. He had a long battle with cancer. Those were very difficult circumstances. Recently I cried at my daughter’s wedding back in June. I shed a tear that day.
SI: Do you pray?
JD: As a Christian, I believe that prayer is something that is important. I find when I pray I have inner peace which really helps me when I am involved in politics. For me, personally, prayer is an important part of my life. I pray for my family, for the work I am doing, that I will be able to help other people. For me, prayer is a way of getting things off my chest.
SI: Do you believe in forgiveness?
JD: I absolutely do believe in forgiveness — and at the heart of the Christian faith is the power of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a very individual, personal thing. I don’t go around telling people they should forgive, that is a point you have to come to in your own personal journey in life.
SI: Do you forgive those IRA men who killed your family members?
JD: It’s not for me to forgive those who murdered members of my family, but I hold no ill will towards anyone. For me, I’ve come to terms with what has happened.
SI: Will you allow your DUP MLAs a free vote on matters such as abortion, gay conversion therapy and so on?
JD: That’s not for me to decide as party leader, that is something party officers
decide. Recently, on the issue of organ donation, we granted a free vote.
SI: And what about abortion?
JD: To be clear, the DUP is a pro-life party, we believe passionately in the right to life — and that is something that I believe will continue to be a core value for the DUP.
SI: When will you become Stormont’s First Minister?
JD: We have a First Minister, my colleague Paul Givan. I am not a member of the Assembly as of yet, so it’s not possible for me to be First Minister. If an opportunity arises between now and the Assembly election, I will take that opportunity to be an MLA and First Minister.
SI: But what if you are not successful and Sinn Féin becomes the biggest party?
JD: I am not contemplating that outcome.
SI: You and singer Daniel O’Donnell look very alike — as one woman in the street reminded you before we came in here. Have you ever met him?
JD: I met him twice, once in Newcastle and once in Belfast. He is a very nice man.
I fear the comparison between Daniel and I, and the similarities in how we look, is probably very unfair on Daniel.
SI: In terms of the protocol, you’ve threatened to bring down Stormont if you don’t get your way. Is that just an empty threat?
JD: Let me be absolutely clear, we have given a number of weeks to enable discussions to take place. The language has now changed. People in the EU were not talking about negotiations, they were not talking about opening the protocol.
I think the action we have taken has changed the dynamic here. That needs to happen within weeks. I am aiming to get this sorted.
SI: But are you serious about bringing down Stormont, which many believe is irresponsible?
JD: I have made my position clear, if we do not get an outcome that is satisfactory to unionism then I will withdraw
Sitting in the party office at Stormont, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill has a lot on her mind.
Having just battled Covid-19, the Sinn Féin Vice President is now trying to mount the best defence against the ever-changing pandemic via a sometimes fractious Executive.
And as police investigate threats issued to her via social media, O’Neill knows politics is a hostile environment — which is why her relationship with relatively new First Minister Paul Givan may not be as cordial as the one she had with his predecessor Arlene Foster.
It’s in this room where Martin McGuinness stepped down, not long before his death in 2017.
And while the ghosts of Sinn Féin’s past continue to linger, O’Neill says she wants to step outside her comfort zone and reach out to unionists — but that doesn’t include attending this week’s church service to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland.
You have just recovered from Covid-19 — did having the disease change your perspective on life?
: It certainly did impact me personally. I think the whole pandemic over the last 18 months has made a lot of people re-evaluate their lives, and their work-life balance, and the things that are important to them. It just shows you that everything you have can be taken away from you at a moment’s notice. That compounded my thoughts to get a good strong work-life balance and prioritise the things that are important.
: Did you lose anyone close to you during the pandemic?
: I lost a loved one; my aunt’s partner died during Covid. That was difficult. It has been a difficult time for many people on many fronts; I think there is going to be an aftermath for Covid in terms of people’s mental health and well-being. I think we have to be mindful of that.
: Have you had any low moments over the past 18 months?
It has been very challenging; there were times when I have been extremely worried. There were times at the start of this pandemic when we were making provisions for temporary morgues and so on. You can’t make decisions like that without it weighing heavily on your own mental health and well-being.
: Looking back, were there moments when you were reduced to tears?
It’s no secret that I cried. I cried in the chamber when being questioned about a young woman who needed treatment for cancer and she was being sent home. I am only human at the end of the day. Of course, there were difficult days. It was a whole series of difficult decisions.
: It emerged last week that the UK failed in its response to Covid-19 and has been heavily criticised for this. Given that the Northern Ireland Executive took much of its lead initially from the UK government, do you believe there were failures here too?
I think there will be plenty of time for reflection and we’ll have our own inquiry into how we conducted ourselves in terms of the response to the pandemic.
: But do you believe there were failures here?
None of us faced this before, so there was a lot of learning — particularly in those initial days. I was publicly critical of the Boris Johnson approach and thought it was too slow in terms of the lockdown. There will be plenty of time for reflection. We’re not out of the pandemic yet.
: To be clear: will there be a review into how the pandemic was handled by your Executive?
We definitely will be reviewing all of that, I think that’s very important. We have to apply our own learning and take on board and recognise what was good, and what perhaps could have been done better.
: How are you going to bring about a Border poll?
The Good Friday Agreement sets out the Border poll; it’s the people here who will decide. I welcome the fact there is increased commentary around constitutional change and I think it’s always important to ensure people know — even those that are yet to be convinced of the merits of constitutional change — that they know it will never be foisted upon them. It will be the people here alone who will decide when that time is right. I make the case today that now is the time to plan and prepare.
: Yes, but what’s the Sinn Féin strategy for this? Your party doesn’t appear to be making much of a song and dance about it at the moment?
We work the Good Friday Agreement, that’s what sets out the criteria. I see no contradiction in being in the Assembly, working the Executive, power-sharing every day while also articulating the need for change. I think partition has been devastating for all of us living on this island. We can do better.
: How do you propose to win over unionists who simply will never agree to a United Ireland?
I think by my actions every day. There are a whole lot of things that are important to people. When I was health minister I never thought about people’s health needs based on their identity, I did what was good for people. I think we need to show this in our actions, and in our deeds as well — to reach out to people, to step outside our comfort zone. To demonstrate there is something better, to have the space to have those conversations and debates.
: You say that, but there hasn’t been much reaching out by Sinn Féin, given that your party has refused to attend the church service in Co Armagh to mark the Centenary this week.
We’ve made it very clear won’t be going to the event, we also made it clear we agreed with the President’s decision not to go. We always welcome the opportunity to articulate our perspective, because obviously there are very different perspectives on the past. When those opportunities have arisen we have taken them.
: This is an opportunity …
: When it comes to an event celebrating partition there isn’t anything to celebrate for nationalists and I think it’s only right and proper that we wouldn’t participate in any event that’s about the celebration of something that has been catastrophic for the people who live here.
: It’s fair to say Sinn Féin has politicised the event though, isn’t it?
: Certainly not, I would disagree with that. This was not our event, this was an event hosted by the churches. When you think about partition it is current, the impact of partition is current. My experience of partition is one of a sectarian society, one of discrimination. We need to reflect on all of that, and be sensitive when it comes to these events.
: Do you miss Arlene Foster?
: Do I miss Arlene? [Laughs]. I wish her well in all her endeavours.
: Do you watch her on GB News?
: Funny enough, I don’t make a lot of time for that.
: I’m surprised at that!
: I wonder did you get her a leaving present?
: I did, yeah.
: What was it?
: That’s between me and her!
: Tell me one thing you respect about Jeffrey Donaldson?
: Anyone who puts themselves up for political leadership, you have to give them that, anyone who takes on a leadership role. You don’t have to like their style of leadership, you don’t have to like their politics, or their ideology.
: You had to think about that.
: I thought I answered you very quickly.
: What are the first three things you would do as first minister if Sinn Fein becomes the biggest party next year?
: I’m Joint First Minister today and have led us through the pandemic, I fight for the Good Friday Agreement, I’m fighting for stability for business and our local economy. What I do today is what I’ll do tomorrow.
: How do you get on with First Minister Paul Givan? How do you rate him?
: It’s for the DUP to rate how they feel about Paul Givan. He’s not a member of Sinn Féin.
: But he’s your equal, isn’t he?
: He certainly is, the office is a joint office. I work with him every day in terms of the issues we have in front of us — whether that’s the pandemic or the recovery. I hope that we can continue with that constructive relationship, and I hope the DUP starts to engage in all of the work of the Good Friday Agreement — and that includes the north-south ministerial meetings.
: When did you last cry?
: I have a daughter getting married in seven weeks. That’s an emotional experience, your first child getting married. Whenever you see your daughter trying on wedding dresses and doing all of those things, it’s very emotional. She’s 28, we are delighted.
: What’s the worst rumour you’ve read about yourself?
: Jesus, I read that many. Well, actually, I don’t read that many. I hear about that many. People can be very nasty, particularly in the online world. The commentary that is made against anyone in public life — but particularly women — can be quite disgusting and vile at times. Quite often women are treated very differently to their male counterparts, particularly around their appearance and their life in general.
: Have you had to report any of the messages to police?
: I have, recently. I’ve had threats on more than one occasion. I have had very derogatory comments made. I would have referred, for example, a DUP councillor to the standards authorities around some of the language used to describe me. It’s fairly constant.
There are many unionists who want answers about the past, particularly around the role of the IRA. Are you prepared to use your position to help them get closure and justice?
: It’s not about unionists nor nationalists when it comes to dealing with the past, it’s about every individual who was hurt and is still in pain. We have a society where there are many people suffering open wounds — and a lot of pain and hurt has been caused. It’s our job as political leaders of today to try to help heal those wounds, to give all families access to truth, justice and information.
: And what about the Irish government — should it do more?
: They certainly need to do more, they are co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and we have a British government who through many attempts are trying to undermine devolution. They are working against people here — the Amnesty, Brexit, those things are rejected by the majority of people here. The Irish government should be doing more, they should be making that case to the British government.
: There are many people who will never give Sinn Féin a chance, due to its support of the IRA. How will you ever get persuade those people to give your party a chance?
: I try to do that every day, I think I do give people a reason. My focus is very much on the future. I want to bring as many people on that journey with me. The real poll next year will be on the day.
SI: How confident are you that Sinn Féin will triumph in next year’s Assembly election?
MO’N: Of course we want to come back as the largest party not just for the sake of it, but so we can make change with more ministers and so on. I will of course put that to the public. We will be on people’s doorsteps before Christmas.