Feature

‘The peace process has liberated me and allowed me to let go of bitterness’
Jeffery Donaldson – one of the North’s most prominent unionists – tells Martin O’Brien about his journey of faith, his hopes for the future, plans for the Pope to visit and getting on with his Catholic neighbours
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson outside Downing Street and, on right, at a farming protest outside Westminster.

One Monday morning nine years ago, I noticed that a piece of paper with a handwritten message had been left close to the flowers on the step below the Blessed Sacrament in St Peter’s Cathedral in Belfast. The message said: “Please pray for the success of Jeffrey Donaldson’s motion against abortion in Stormont today.”

The writer was referring to the Rt Hon. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (54), Northern Ireland’s longest-serving MP at Westminster where since 1997 he has represented the overwhelmingly unionist constituency of Lagan Valley.

It comprises parts of counties Antrim and Down including such places as Lisburn and the Georgian village of Hillsborough and its Castle which is the official residence of Queen Elizabeth in the North.

Born in Kilkeel, Co. Down, in the shadow of the Mourne Mountains, a descendent of Scottish settlers who arrived there at the time of the Plantation of Ulster, Donaldson is the eldest of a family of eight and is married to Eleanor with whom he has two grown up two daughters.

A former part-time soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) he was knighted in Queen Elizabeth’s Birthday Honours this year and was appointed to the Privy Council in 2007, hence the title ‘Rt Hon.’. 

With the phasing out of the dual mandate he gave up his Assembly seat in 2010 to concentrate on Westminster.

Meetings

Donaldson is probably best known as the senior Ulster Unionist who parted with David Trimble over the Good Friday Agreement hours before it was announced and who forced numerous nail-biting meetings of the ruling Ulster Unionist Council in his trenchant opposition to the Agreement (he argued it was badly flawed) before finally joining the DUP with Arlene Foster and another MLA, Norah Beare, in early 2004.

His critics said that he hadn’t the courage to run with the Agreement that he knew all along would be that tough, a charge he denied saying that he had remained in the negotiations until almost the last possible minute to try to improve its terms.

For several years after the GFA he was constantly in the public spotlight, once described by a British national newspaper as one of the most powerful figures in Britain because of the pivotal position he then held in the peace process.

He was tipped as a future leader and seen as being crucial as to whether Trimble and the Ulster Unionists stuck with the Agreement. Today his role may be less prominent but he looks like a man immensely fulfilled and one sustained by a deep Christian faith.

Sir Jeffrey is Chief Whip of the eight-strong DUP parliamentary group at Westminster and a year ago, David Cameron appointed him UK Trade Envoy to Egypt.

Donaldson is refreshingly upfront about his Christian faith. He exudes a sense of inner peace that might surprise those unaware of his faith and his own belief that the long journey of the peace process has changed, even transformed him.

We meet for more than two hours in one of his constituency advice centres, in Dromore, Co. Down.

Sir Jeffrey said: “I was brought up a Presbyterian and I became a Christian in 1989 which for me meant making a commitment to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But I recognise that Christianity is a very broad church. I don’t get hung up necessarily by denominations. I am a proud Presbyterian but what is really important to me is my personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

“And to give expression to that I often wear an ichthus badge [a fish symbol] which is the symbol by which Christians knew each other when they were facing persecution in the ancient Church.”

Sir Jeffrey adds: “I don’t go around preaching to people. I look at the ministry of Jesus and I see that His ministry was very much practical, about being with people at their point of need and so my faith influences the type of politician that I am.”

He says that regardless of where he is in the world he will spend the first couple of hours of each day, Sunday excepted, attending to constituency business because he believes Jesus has called him to serve people in this way. I see my work as the expression of my Christian faith. It is about taking time to reach out to people, to be there for them, to help them because that is what the ministry of Jesus was about.”

But is that just him fulfilling his contract with those who have elected him, I wonder. “Yes, and my contract with my heavenly Father. I see that my career in politics is my calling.”

Christian

When he “became a Christian” at the age of 26 he asked himself if it was right for a Christian to become involved in politics “because it can be a very difficult place for a Christian to be in”.

“God gave me the answer [in the Bible] when I read the story of Joseph who amid sibling rivalry and jealousy eventually became prime minister of Egypt because God had a plan to save Israel. He placed Joseph in a position of political responsibility to fulfil his plan. Why would the God of the late 20th Century be any different and not have a plan to use people in positions of political responsibility to fulfil his plan for a nation or a community?

“I believe being a Christian means recognising that we cannot on our own strength achieve the things we need to achieve in life. I put my faith in Jesus Christ. I asked him to forgive me for my sins and to help me to live a life that would be in obedience to the ways of God.” 

But did that mean, I wondered, was he in the clear and out of the reach of the devil?

“Did that mean from that moment on I wasn’t a sinner? No, it did not. Did it mean from that moment on I was a perfect person? Absolutely not. We are all sinners but when you put your trust in Jesus and ask for forgiveness that is something that you renew on a daily basis.”

He says he renews his faith every day by reading the Bible when he can but admits that sometimes he is so busy that he has time only to say the Lord’s Prayer.

I was curious why Sir Jeffrey had responded promptly and positively to the request from The Irish Catholic for an interview.

His reply will be welcomed by those who contend that Christians shouldn’t forget that in this secularist age they have more in common than what divides them.

Donaldson said: “We live in changing and challenging times and I believe it is important that we encourage dialogue and a better understanding between people who represent the different traditions in Northern Ireland and across these islands.

“As a Unionist and Presbyterian with a strong Christian faith, it is important to me that my neighbours who are Catholic understand where I am coming from on the social and political issues that confront us at this time, and vice versa.

“We need to have such a dialogue in order to identify where there is common ground on these issues and to explore how we can work together more effectively to promote the values that are important to us. 

“That does not require us to compromise on our core beliefs or mean that we bury our theological differences. However, we need to recognise that people of faith will continue to witness the erosion of our Christian heritage unless we raise our voice more coherently in the public square.”

Donaldson’s reference to exploring common ground and shared values reminded me of that message that I saw in St Peter’s Cathedral on October 22, 2007, the day he spearheaded (with Iris Robinson) a resolution in the Assembly, passed by agreement, which opposed any liberalisation of the North’s laws which prohibit abortion except where the mother’s life is in extreme danger.

That message underlined that this DUP MP, committed Christian and Orangeman was resonating with Catholics on moral issues.

The last three elections in Northern Ireland have seen the combined nationalist vote fall from 42% in 2011 to 36% in May’s Assembly election.

This has prompted speculation that a significant number of Catholics, who believe that some key moral issues take precedence, either stay away or vote for the DUP (or other like-minded unionist candidates) because of that party’s strong pro-life position and its opposition to the redefinition of marriage - in contrast to Sinn Féin’s support for the repeal of the Irish Constitution’s Eighth Amendment which protects the unborn, and both Sinn Féin’s and the SDLP’s championing of same-sex marriage.

I have heard it authoritatively said that in the 2015 Westminster election Sinn Féin’s policy on abortion cost them the Fermanagh South Tyrone seat.

Evidence

There is anecdotal evidence of some Catholics, including some priests, voting for the DUP but I wondered had Donaldson himself any hard evidence of Catholics actually voting for his party.

 “Yes, in the recent Assembly elections I met Catholics in the Lisburn area who were very clear about this on the doorstep. They said, ‘Jeffrey, we are a Catholic family and all of us are voting for the DUP because we support the stance you take on social issues’. They said they were voting for the DUP for the first time. How significant this is I am not sure but I know it is there and it is growing.”

Nowhere in the interview was Sir Jeffrey more passionate than in defending the right to life of the unborn child and upholding the sanctity of human life.

“My experience of ‘the Troubles’ has taught me to value greatly human life.” 

Two first cousins of Donaldson, an uncle’s two sons, both officers in the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the brothers Samuel Donaldson (23), and Alexander Donaldson (41) were killed by the IRA in 1970 and 1985. 

Samuel and a colleague were the first two RUC victims of the IRA in the Troubles and Alexander was one of nine officers killed in a mortar attack on Newry police station.

I have known and observed Jeffrey Donaldson for more than 30 years and I have never heard him seek to make political capital out of those violent family bereavements.

He says that during the Troubles “the value of human life at times lay in the gutter”.

“The issue of abortion says so much about the society that we are, that the Assembly must hold the line.”

He adds: “If you believe in human rights you must protect the life of the unborn child. So, when I hear organisations like Amnesty International, on one hand beat their chests as the champions of human rights and at the same time argue that the life of the unborn child is valueless and does not have a human right, I cannot in conscience square that argument or see the logic of it.”

In contrast, Donaldson singles out Marion Woods, spokesperson of Life NI, for praise: “Marion speaks out with great clarity and great dignity   on pro-life issues.”

He expresses satisfaction that there “is common ground on these issues across the Christian denominations. I would like to see us working more closely together because I see that the pressure to bend on these issues will increase in the years ahead.”

Sir Jeffrey emphasises that he is not seeking any endorsement from any Church or denomination “because they should be above politics but I think it is important that likeminded people work together.

“And that is why when I get single mothers coming to me for help they get priority because they have made a decision to bring a child into the world. I will do what I can to help that woman to receive all her entitlements. I do not expect them to get more than they are entitled to but I will work tirelessly for women who’ve taken the decision to bring a child into this world.”

On the “hard cases” such as so-called fatal foetal abnormality Sir Jeffrey says: “I have met children who have been born with so-called abnormalities who have lived lives which are enriching for them and their families. It is extremely difficult for those families and as a society we need to ensure that they are fully supported though pregnancy. For me the important thing is the sanctity of human life and that overrides everything.”

He was speaking before it emerged that the Stormont Executive is to consider – probably early in the New Year – a report from a working group that has reportedly proposed a change in the law specifically in regard to so-called fatal foetal abnormality. (The eminent obstetrician Prof. Jim Dornan told BBC NI in 2015 that FFE is not a recognised medical term and that no doctor knows if and when a foetus is going to die.)

Sir Jeffrey chuckles when invited to tender advice to the citizens of the Republic as they follow the deliberations of the Citizens’ Assembly and hear calls for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

“I can only say what I say to my fellow citizens in Northern Ireland. I think that as a society we have a responsibility to speak for and protect the rights of the most vulnerable in our society. I put it to you that there can be no more vulnerable an existence than that of the unborn child that relies on others, primarily its mother, primarily its mother [he repeats for emphasis.] The unborn child has no control over its own destiny to the point where it is born”.

“So I would simply say to people living in the Republic, when it comes to considering the laws on abortion, do we feel that we have a duty to protect the right to life of the unborn child? And if we do I think it is very clear what we should do.”

 Donaldson cannot resist the temptation to inject a reference to an oft-quoted line in the 1916 Proclamation. “I find it just a little ironic that the nation that proclaims the principle of cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, is contemplating the prospect of actually not upholding the rights of the unborn child and that is something that people need to think about.”   

Another factor contributing to the erosion of the nationalist vote in the North may be the support expressed for the redefinition of marriage and the introduction of same-sex marriage by Sinn Féin and the SDLP.

Northern Ireland is the only jurisdiction in these islands that has not seen marriage redefined and this is because Donaldson’s DUP has blocked attempts in Stormont to introduce same sex marriage by deploying a safeguard called a Petition of Concern.

Donaldson says that as a Presbyterian and a Christian he holds the view that “marriage is about the traditional concept of the family and the coming together of one man and one woman.”

He is not convinced by the arguments for same-sex marriage. However, he stresses his “absolute respect for other people in society who take a different view” and “respects absolutely that there are people engaged in relationships that are other than heterosexual.”

He robustly defends the DUP’s use of the Petition of Concern, “a mechanism to protect the interests of minorities, plural” and argues that Christians are a category who should be protected by it.

“I find it ironic that those who support same-sex marriage, who argue that they are a majority in Northern Ireland, do not believe that the Christian minority, as they would describe them, should have the right to be protected in any way. The very same people who argue that LGBT rights should be protected in law because LGBT people are a minority, are the same people who argue that the Christians should not have the same level of protection.

“So why shouldn’t the DUP exercise its right in law to have a Petition of Concern where it believes that a significant minority interest is impugned by a particular proposal?”

In the interview, conducted before the Taoiseach’s announcement that Pope Francis intends to visit in 2018, I asked Donaldson what he thought of a probable Papal visit to Northern Ireland at that time.

Mindful perhaps that his party has not discussed it, he replied that he would give “a personal view” and acknowledged “there are people who have different views on this.”

“The fact is that there are hundreds of thousands of people who live in Northern Ireland who are of the Roman Catholic faith and the Pope is the leader of their Church. And therefore, I think that if the Pope is visiting members of his Church in Northern Ireland, are we suggesting that he should be banned from Northern Ireland?”

He points out that the Dalai Lama and other religious leaders have visited Northern Ireland.

“I don’t think we would want to send out a message which says that the leader of a certain denomination is not welcome here. There are issues of doctrine that I would disagree with the Pope on, but it doesn’t mean that I want to ban him from visiting my country.”

Agreement

Reflecting on the run-up to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and its aftermath Donaldson singles out Albert Reynolds and John Major “for particular credit” for the role they played in the peace process.

He says that their 1993 Downing Street Declaration was “an absolutely crucial staging post on the road to peace and the creation of the institutions that eventually emerged because it paved the way for the ending of the territorial claim and the enshrining of the principle of consent in the Irish Constitution.”

Sir Jeffrey says that he foresaw Sinn Féin overtaking the SDLP and that he himself “had crossed the Rubicon” in realising that unionists would have to sit in government with them.

He says that “the fundamental flaws” in the GFA, which prevented him from being able to “look my constituents and my family in the eye and say this is worth supporting” was “the absence of some clear evidence that the Provisional IRA had left the battlefield.”

“I needed to be sure that the Sinn Féin that was going to be in government was a Sinn Féin that was not bringing the IRA into the Cabinet room with them.”

The most powerful way for the IRA to provide the evidence he needed was “to do something about its weapons” and the GFA had fudged that. 

“Here we had a political party linked to an organisation dedicated to the overthrow of the state of Northern Ireland going to be part of the government. There were two ways to measure their bona fides, one was their attitude to their weapons, the other to the rule of law.”

He “could not in conscience before God” support the Agreement and told Trimble that the absence of a timetable for the decommissioning of weapons was “a ticking time bomb within the Agreement.”

However, he accepts that people such as his UUP colleagues Trimble and Ken Maginnis and the SDLP’s John Hume could in good faith have looked into their hearts and discerned the GFA differently, which they did. 

He recalls “a particularly emotional, tearful heart to heart conversation” with Maginnis, his former UDR colleague for whom he has “deep respect”, on Good Friday morning 1998 in which “Ken said he felt compelled to support the Agreement, flawed as it was.”

Donaldson says the flaws in the GFA were fixed sufficiently after the St Andrews Agreement of 2006 which led to Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness jointly coming to power with the restoration of devolution – under the Good Friday institutions - in 2007.

“Sinn Féin did then cross the Rubicon. We did get IRA decommissioning and crucially we did get Sinn Féin commitment to policing and to the rule of law.”

Surveying the present he declaims: “Sinn Féin are in the government of Northern Ireland, they are administering British rule in this part of Ireland, they have accepted the futility of violence in trying to change things, and I don’t believe that any of their leaders alive today will live to see a united Ireland.”

He rejects the likelihood of Scotland triggering the break-up of the UK post Brexit by voting to leave the UK at the second attempt, and consequently Northern Ireland being challenged to choose between remaining part of what would be a truncated UK and joining with the rest of Ireland in the EU.

On the contrary he sees the Republic and the UK coming closer together post-Brexit and believes the State visit of Queen Elizabeth to the Republic has greatly deepened the relationship between the two countries.

Sir Jeffrey, as chairman of the Northern Ireland Centenary Committee has   presided at several Somme commemorations this year.

He cites the words of Major Willie Redmond, the Nationalist MP who perished at the Somme: “It would be a fine memorial to the men who have died so splendidly if we could, over their graves, build up a bridge between the North and the South.”

Donaldson believes Redmond’s words should inspire us today but he would like to see that bridge being built not through a strengthening of the North-South Ministerial Council which “is working fine” but through a closer association between Dublin and London, “either through the Republic joining the Commonwealth or through some other way, post-Brexit. Without compromising the Republic’s independence or sovereignty in any way, I believe there is the potential for us to do things in a different way from what we have contemplated in the past.”

Sir Jeffrey has the air of a man unburdened by the peace process, striving to use words that you tend not to associate with many unionist politicians.  

“I’m a monarchist, I’m a Unionist, I believe passionately in the United Kingdom, but I also recognise that part of my identity, part of who I am, is also about the fact that I was born in Northern Ireland and so I was born on this island and therefore there is part of my identity which is about Irishness. And I think the problem with the politics of the past is that many Unionists have felt inhibited in giving expression to that part of their identity.

“Northern Ireland is in a better more optimistic place for our children and grandchildren. Unionists can see that the glass is half full, something we were not always good at doing.

“We now live in a society where there is much less fear, much less suspicion and much less bitterness.”

In this new environment politicians are able “to strike the right balance between principle and pragmatism.”

He is most reflective when he shares with readers of The Irish Catholic something of what he describes as “my own personal journey” in tandem with the peace process.

“For me personally it has been a liberating journey because I have been able to deal within myself with the bitterness that I felt towards those who were responsible for killing family members, for killing comrades with whom I had served, for killing people within the community that I grew up with.

“And I did feel bitter towards people who had done those things. But I have been able to deal with that at a personal level and I have been able to deal with it because of my Christian faith. And for me it has been a liberating experience. And I recognise that what we cannot do is change the past but we do have an opportunity to do something that will prevent what happened in the past reoccurring in the future.”

Has Donaldson mellowed, I wonder. “Yes” he replies. “My journey over the past 30 years has been a journey that has changed me and Northern Ireland has changed. In fact, I would use the word transformation”.

Referring to the continued failure to find agreement between the parties on dealing with the past he said: “I hope that we will soon find practical ways of dealing with those legacy issues. We owe it to the victims and survivors to do that. But I believe that even now Northern Ireland is a transformed place and for me there has been a personal transformation.

“We are in a much better place because we have achieved things like the principle of consent enshrined now in our constitutional arrangements and in the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland. We have achieved recognition of the existence and the continued existence of Northern Ireland and its right to exist. We have achieved republicans for the first time in their history signing up to support the rule of law in Northern Ireland. All that is very significant.”

There was a time when he was tipped to topple David Trimble and succeed him as leader and I wondered why he had never got the top job. 

“That presupposes”, Jeffrey Donaldson replies, “that my purpose in politics is to further my own career. It isn’t and it has never been that. I am here to serve the people and my faith is important in how I serve the people I represent. If God wanted me in a particular position he would have opened the door for me and it would have become possible.”09-1