Biggest Northern Ireland unionist party endorses new leader

LONDON — Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party formally endorsed Jeffrey Donaldson as its new leader on Saturday, a position that will likely see him become the country’s first minister.

Donaldson received 32 votes of the party’s 36-strong electoral college, which is made up of the party’s 28 lawmakers in the Northern Ireland assembly and its eight members of parliament in London.

The 58-year-old, who leads the party’s caucus in the U.K. Parliament in London, was the sole candidate in the election, which follows a chaotic two months for Northern Ireland’s largest party.

Donaldson had narrowly lost in the previous election last month to Edwin Poots, who resigned last week after colleagues revolted over a deal to appoint new leaders to the Protestant-Catholic power-sharing administration. Poots, a social and religious conservative, didn’t attend the meeting on Saturday.

“I believe that today’s decision is an important first step in building the unity of my party, in rebuilding the strength of my party, in providing the leadership that Northern Ireland needs at this time,” Donaldson said. “It’s been a difficult and a bruising period for the DUP, we all acknowledge that and we’ve all played our part in that.”

Donaldson, who will become the official party leader next week when the DUP’s ruling executive meets to ratify his appointment, has has made clear his intent to return from London to Belfast to assume the first minister’s job. However, the timeline for that move remains unclear.

Donaldson said Paul Givan, who was appointed by his predecessor Poots, will remain first minister “for the time being.”

The DUP, which is rooted in the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church, opposed Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord. It later became reconciled to it and has shared power with the Irish Republican Army-linked Sinn Fein. The power-sharing relationship has often been strained, and the U.K’s departure from the EU last year has shaken the political balance in Northern Ireland.

Donaldson said one of his key priorities would be to “right the wrong” of the Northern Ireland Protocol, a post-Brexit trading arrangement between the British government and the European Union that has seen customs and border checks imposed on some goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. That’s angered Northern Ireland’s unionist community who say the checks amount to a border in the Irish Sea and weaken ties with the rest of the U.K.

“This protocol is doing enormous harm to our economy, to confidence, to political stability and that’s why I believe that we’ve got to find another way of doing things that doesn’t do the harm the protocol is doing to Northern Ireland,” Donaldson said.

The British government retains an array of powers affecting Northern Ireland, but the Belfast assembly can make laws in areas including agriculture, education and health.