Donaldson quits Ulster Unionists and considers joining Paisley

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The Independent Online

A major new fissure opened up in Northern Ireland Protestant politics yesterday when the rebel MP Jeffrey Donaldson resigned from David Trimble's Ulster Unionist party.

The man who has been a relentless critic of his party leader and party policy for five years said he had been offered a place on the negotiating team of the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

He and two other Assembly members, who are also resigning from the Ulster Unionist party (UUP), are to spend several weeks considering whether to take up the DUP's offer.

Mr Donaldson's departure will be viewed with mixed feelings within his former party, which has been in the throes of often heated internal debate on how it lost out to the DUP in last month's Assembly election.

The departing MP has been a thorn in Mr Trimble's side ever since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, calling a series of meetings to challenge the party's support for the accord.

On several occasions he and other critics came close to defeating Mr Trimble's policy, but they never quite made it. Mr Donaldson has often been spoken of as a future party leader but in recent months his star has waned.

Last Friday the party executive gave him a choice which was interpreted as an ultimatum to either back party policy or go.

Many in the party will be glad to see him go, hoping that his departure will leave a more united UUP. On the other hand, he has been a significant vote-getter. If he and the two other dissidents, Arlene Foster and Norah Beare, opt to join the DUP the balance of power in the Assembly will be 33 DUP members to 24 Trimble supporters.

While Mr Trimble's party may be more harmonious in the wake of the Donaldson departure its forces have been further depleted. And the UUP's task of once again becoming the largest Unionist party may have been made more difficult. Mr Donaldson's arrival in the DUP also means that party will arguably have a superior senior team of representatives than that of the UUP, since he will join articulate MPs such as Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds.

Mr Donaldson said yesterday: "I have been a member of this party for over 20 years, but it is not the party I joined.

"It's a party that has abandoned its principles. It is a party which can no longer command the support of a clear majority of Unionists."

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