SLIGHTLY tongue-in-cheek, I wrote a piece at the start of the year making a series of political predictions.
Naturally, you don’t really expect half of them to come true, but I posited that Jeffrey Donaldson would not see out 2023 as leader of the Democratic Unionists.
Having showed little enthusiasm for the leadership over the past twenty-five years, he found himself thrust into the role following the one-month leadership hiatus of the entirely unsuitable Edwin Poots back in June 2021.
The party turned to Donaldson who was regarded then, as now, as a responsible adult who could steer the DUP through trouble waters as it lobbied the British government to scrap the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Clearly, the DUP has entirely failed in that endeavour. The Protocol became the Windsor Framework — and it was driven through parliament with a thumping majority.
This leaves Donaldson and the DUP scratching around for political cover to hide their retreat, as pressure on them mounts to rescind their boycott off the devolved institutions.
Senior figures in his party – including many of his MPs – are hostile to any early return.
They complain that that the Windsor Framework – the British government’s full and final Brexit deal with the EU - creates a yawning gap, with Northern Ireland’s economy now tilting away from Britain and towards Brussels’ orbit.
In that, the hardliners are correct. It does.
The trouble for them is that Westminster knows all this full well – and still agreed to it.
Donaldson is a smart cookie and knows that all roads lead back to the Stormont Assembly. He also knows that whatever inducement he eventually receives from British ministers will fall short of want many in his party want.
So, in that event, he needs to decide to push back hard against the naysayers, mostly the DUP’s old guard in Westminster who are a step removed from the main political battlefield - or give in to them.
Unfortunately, there is little in Donaldson’s political career that suggests he is preparing to fight for the soul of his party.
A party, let us not forget, that he only joined after quitting the Ulster Unionists as his then leader, David Trimble, desperately tried to negotiate the best deal he could during the Good Friday Agreement talks.
Instead, Donaldson chose to align himself with the rejectionists of the DUP. Therefore, you would need a heart of stone not to find mirth in the predicament he now finds himself in.
But it is no laughing matter – especially as one on three people in Northern Ireland languishes on an NHS waiting list because the executive is mothballed.
All this means that a crunch point is coming.
In the final analysis, political leadership is about doing things that are difficult, however much you try and put them off.
My hunch is that Donaldson is quietly setting the ground for a battle with his hardliners.
Can he win it and lead and what does it mean for him personally?
He will hope to assemble a quiet majority of Assembly members, many of whom are starting to sense that public disquiet about the stagnant economy and collapsing public services will find its way to their doors. They are prepared to go back in.
What about Donaldson himself? He doesn’t want to sit in the Assembly or become Deputy First Minister to Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill and promptly gave up his Assembly seat within 72 hours of winning it last year.
Frankly, he never looks comfortable as leader and seems to prefer Westminster and his role as the British government’s trade envoy to Egypt and Cameroon.
So, I reckon whatever British ministers propose to get the executive restarted will find Donaldson and his supporters enthusiastic (enough) and he will use it to overcome the recalcitrant elements in his party.
After that — and with a restored executive — I suspect my turn of the year prediction will come true and he will be spending a great deal more time in Cairo and Yaoundé.
Calling for sensible co-operation doesn’t make you a zealot
Jeremy Corbyn, the former Labour leader, seemed to go down a storm speaking in Belfast at the recent Féile an Phobail.
He was addressing one of the biggest audiences for a speaking event in the festival’s 35-year history at St. Mary’s University College on the Falls Road, discussing the broad ranging subject of ‘the Choices for Ireland’.
A long-time ally of the Irish community in Britain, Corbyn paid tribute to James Connolly and the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, making the astute point that so much could have been achieved if the sixteen slain patriots had lived.
He also predicted that we are now nearer than ever to the point when there will be a vote on Irish reunification, remarking that the prospect was ‘far higher now than it's been at almost any time in my lifetime.’
Indeed, the whole of Ireland needs to be ready, and Dublin should be ‘proactive in terms of preparing the ground’ for a vote in the next few years, Corbyn said.
But just as much attention seemed to be paid to remarks by Pat Cullen, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing.
Speaking from the floor at the same event, she suggested that greater co-operation with the Republic around healthcare was the best way of saving the system in the North.
Some took this as a political intervention, with the Ulster Unionists seeking ‘clarification’ about her remarks.
It was nothing of the sort.
As someone previously involved in reorganising specialist health services across both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland, she knows what she is talking about.
Cullen was merely making the point that the scandalous state of the Northern Ireland NHS is not going to get better anytime soon.
It makes sense to ignore the border when it comes to delivering the best healthcare for people.
She was previously involved in the decision to centre paediatric cardiac surgery for the whole island of Ireland in Dublin.
It means sick young children do not have to get on a plane to Britain for treatment, or for their family members to be able to sit at their bedside.
It also means being able to pull together the best qualified staff in a single location – a major problem for the NHS in the North, which struggles with specialist recruitment.
Some unionist politicians might pull faces at Cullen’s suggestions, but patients – regardless of their politics – will be forever grateful.
This, then, is the next chapter in the discussion about a future Ireland. Not the principle of Irish unity, but its practical workings and the benefits for all that it will bring.