Politics in the north of Ireland is facing a period of transition as unionist extremist and religious fundamentalist Edwin Poots emerged as the most likely person to take over the helm of the DUP.
Poots (pictured, left) is the odds-on favourite to take over from First Minister Arlene Foster (right), who announced her resignation from elected politics following a highly co-ordinated internal heave against her this week.
The swift nature of her downfall had left her shocked, upset and feeling betrayed, according to reports. She was “in bits” and “just didn’t see it coming”, friends said.
The secretive coup, with all but one DUP Assembly backbencher signing a letter calling for Foster to go, suggests that a succession is well underway. Only a small number of the DUP’s membership (28 MLAs and 8 MPs) will get to vote in a leadership contest, and Poots is the clear front-runner.
It has emerged that the party’s lurch to the right had been building behind the scenes as a result of frustration over Foster’s failure to take a stronger stance against social reform. The party’s Christian fundamentalists are said to have become particularly infuriated by Foster’s increasing tolerance of homosexuality.
The final straw, which precipitated the heave, was Foster’s failure to vote in the Stormont Assembly against a ban on ‘gay conversion therapy’ –– bogus treatments intended to alter a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
The handling of Brexit negotiations and their outcome, the furore over the funeral of IRA man Bobby Storey last year, and cultural issues such as the Irish language have also been cited as reasons for dissatisfaction by DUP backbenchers and hardline unionist commentators.
Mrs Foster said she would wait until she steps down at the end of June before revealing whether she will leave the DUP altogether, but said she was “at peace with her decision” to quit politics, including leaving the Assembly.
“Politics is a very brutal game I think everybody knows that to be the case. I haven’t actually spoken to any of the colleagues who are purported to have signed the letters, they haven’t been in touch.
“So, you know, that’s a matter for them. I’ll move on and look forward and I’m looking forward to the next chapter as to what I’m going to do with my life.”
One of the letters which led to the resignation of Arlene Foster has been published in part. The letter from a number of DUP councillors said they were concerned about the state of the party. Calling for the departure of both Mrs Foster and her deputy Nigel Dodds, it stated: “We believe that the protocol needs to be overthrown. Abortion laws need to be repealed. The behaviour of Sinn Féin may not go unchallenged and we must return to the unionist and Christian values of our party.”
POOTS ‘LOVES NI’
Minister for Agriculture Edwin Poots officially declared himself a candidate on Thursday, saying: “I am a proud Northern Ireland man, I love its people and its place and it faces many challenging times, it’s with that in mind, I’m putting my name forward for the leadership for the Democratic Unionist Party.”
He has already released a number of videos in which DUP figures give their endorsement to his candidature, suggesting a degree of pre-planning for his campaign.
The son of a loyalist extremist, DUP Councillor Charles Poots, who in 1975 called for water and electricity supplies to be cut in Catholic areas, the Lisburn native enjoys solid support among the party’s so-called ‘backwoodsmen’.
Aligned with an evangelical pressure group, he has made statements backing creationism and denouncing homosexuality.
Poots has also recently suggested Catholics were to blame for the spread of Covid-19 across the north, and created a mini-crisis in February when he unilaterally suspended Brexit protocol checks at the north’s ports.
The stance of Poots’ most likely challenger, Jeffrey Donaldson, is unclear. Seen as less extreme than Poots, the Lagan Valley MP may be tarnished by having joined the DUP from the UUP alongside Foster in 2004.
INSTITUTIONS IN PERIL
Whoever the new DUP leader is, the rules of the political institutions in Belfast require the party to name a replacement First Minister after Mrs Foster steps down at the end of June.
The process will require the support of Sinn Féin. But with questions over the DUP’s commitment to power-sharing, including the implementation of long-delayed Irish language legislation and other equality issues, that appears to be a very tall order.
If a replacement is not nominated, the British Direct Ruler must call an assembly election. An election is scheduled for next year, but failure to agree a new first minister would bring this date forward.
Sinn Féin’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the Executive must be sustained to deliver on commitments made in the 2020 ‘New Decade, New Approach’ deal.
“This requires a genuine commitment from all political leaders to power-sharing and to work to deliver equality for women, for the LGBT community, for Irish language and identity and all sections of our community,” she said.
She wished the outgoing first minister and her family well.
“Throughout the pandemic I acknowledge the efforts Arlene Foster has made as First Minister, and the service that she has given in working with the rest of the Executive as we have battled the biggest health crisis in a generation,” she said.
But she warned her successor to be aware of the desire for progressive political change.
Ms O’Neill said power-sharing required “genuine commitment from all political leaders”.
“Within the executive and assembly, Sinn Féin will work with all parties to progress social reform, political change and economic prosperity - but we will robustly oppose damaging policies or regressive throwback politics of the past,” she said.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald also extended her regards to Arlene Foster and her family.
“The DUP now begins the process of electing a new party leader. We want to work with them in a spirit of generosity and respect.”
She said that meant sharing power in the Stormont Executive, and working with the Dublin government in the North-South Ministerial Council; while respecting diversity and delivering the agreed Irish language legislation.
“Unionism is at a crossroads. The inbuilt unionist majority is now a thing of the past,” she said.
“Progressive social changes such as marriage equality are happening. Brexit and Covid-19 are also driving the politics of change. There is no going back.”