DUP leader quits Northern Ireland Assembly to stay MP

BELFAST — Democratic Unionist Party chief Jeffrey Donaldson’s career as a Northern Ireland Assembly member didn’t last a week.

Donaldson confirmed he has resigned his seat before even taking the pledge of office in Friday’s opening session. A DUP politician who didn’t run in last week’s election, Emma Little-Pengelly, was installed in his place.

Donaldson was one of 25 Democratic Unionists elected last week to the 90-member chamber but faced an immediate choice of whether to show up for work at Belfast or stay as MP for Lagan Valley, his job for the past quarter-century in the U.K.’s House of Commons.

Since current rules don’t permit holding two elected posts at once, Donaldson had faced questions from the start over which one he would choose. In his resignation statement, Donaldson kept the door open for another U-turn — if Britain meets his demand to tear up the post-Brexit trade protocol it agreed with the European Commission.

“I will continue as the member of Parliament for Lagan Valley until the protocol issues are resolved,” Donaldson said.

When campaigning to become Democratic Unionist leader last year and more recently when seeking Lagan Valley votes, Donaldson repeatedly insisted he would quit as MP in London and lead the DUP up the hill to the Stormont Parliament Buildings overlooking Belfast. But many inside and outside DUP ranks doubted he’d follow through — particularly not if he couldn’t be crowned first minister, the top power-sharing post.

The election results confirmed Sinn Féin, not the DUP, as the biggest party for the first time. That meant Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill wins promotion to the top post while Donaldson would have filled her less prestigious chair of deputy first minister.

The DUP’s 25 assembly members are pledged to block government formation at the inaugural session Friday.

Quitting as MP would have forced the weakened DUP to contest a by-election against the surging Alliance Party, which seeks support from both the British Protestant and Irish Catholic sides of the community.

Alliance more than doubled its assembly seats to 17 in last week’s election. Like the DUP, it won two assembly seats in the Lagan Valley five-seater. Some analysts see one of Alliance’s successful candidates, Sorcha Eastwood, as a strong contender to be its future MP.

Opponents accused Donaldson of deliberately misleading voters.

“What a disingenuous way to treat the electorate of Lagan Valley!” declared Jim Allister, who leads a harder-line party, Traditional Unionist Voice, that opposes any resumption of power-sharing with Sinn Féin.

Allister’s TUV hoovered a quarter of the votes away from the DUP in the election, opening the door for Irish nationalists to attain pole position even though Sinn Féin won 27 seats, the same total as before.

Little-Pengelly, 42, is considered a rising star of Democratic Unionist politics. She was a special adviser to the party’s late founder, Ian Paisley, and his successor Peter Robinson during the Democratic Unionists’ first historic coalitions with Sinn Féin from 2007 to 2015, when she was co-opted into a vacant DUP assembly seat.

She was elected MP for South Belfast, Northern Ireland’s most diverse constituency, in 2017 but lost that seat two years later. She returned to legal practice and in recent weeks worked as a political commentator on BBC and Ulster TV broadcasts in Belfast.

Little-Pengelly said she agreed to take Donaldson’s assembly seat because he “has an important task to complete in addressing the continued problem of the protocol. … This requires him to be in London and working closely with the U.K. government.”