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Critical moment for Donaldson amid Stormont speculation

This could be a defining moment for Jeffrey Donaldson.

Almost two years after pulling the plug on power sharing at Stormont, there is intense speculation that the DUP leader is preparing to lead his party back into devolution.

The sense is that the DUP leader is preparing to jump.

Senior civil servants at Stormont were advised last week to start preparing the ground for the possible return of ministers.

The Lagan Valley MP will this evening fulfil a promise to brief his party executive on the progress of negotiations with the British government to resolve its concerns about the Windsor Framework post Brexit-trade agreement.

The party said the agreement weakens Northern Ireland’s place within the UK because of the necessity for customs checks on many goods arriving from Britain, the so-called Irish Sea border.

It is believed to be unlikely that Mr Donaldson would call such a meeting unless he was confident that he has significant news to deliver.

There have been signals from the party leadership in recent weeks that they believe they have made substantial progress and secured significant concessions.

Meanwhile, senior decision makers within the DUP have been briefed, no details of the reported deal have yet been verified by the party or the UK government.

Tonight is time for the big reveal.

The stakes are high.

His continued leadership of the party could also potentially be on the line.

The party officer team has the power to approve the deal and end the DUP boycott of devolution

Mr Donaldson will hope that the 120 members of the DUP executive like what they hear and endorse his chosen direction of travel, which appears to be a return to Stormont.

However, it is known that some members, including MPs and Assembly members, have grave concerns that the reported deal does not go far enough because it offers modifications of the Irish Sea border, not its removal.

The location of the meeting is being kept under wraps to reduce the possibility of unionist and loyalist opponents of the reported deal mounting a protest in an effort to put pressure on those attending.

Earlier this afternoon, Mr Donaldson briefed the party’s elected Stormont Assembly members and then met his team of MPs and members of the House of Lords at DUP headquarters in east Belfast.

But there are no plans at this stage for the DUP’s key decision-making body, the 12 strong party officer team, to meet today.

Only that group, elected by the executive, has the power to approve the deal and end its boycott of devolution.

It is unclear whether the party officer team met over the weekend in advance of tonight’s gathering.

Mr Donaldson is expected to speak to the media after the executive meeting.

The expectation is that he will signal an intention to return to devolution, but could use the opportunity to put pressure on the British government and the EU to make further concessions to help complete the journey.

That could all change if the progress he outlines during the meeting is deemed insufficient and a sizeable number of delegates indicate their opposition.

In that case a desire to maintain party unity could trump all.

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