The DUP is set for its first-ever leadership contest after MP Jeffrey Donaldson announced he will run for the leadership against the Stormont Minister for Agriculture Edwin Poots.
The election is due to take place among the party’s MPs and Assembly members next Friday, 14 May to find a successor to Arlene Foster, who was forced out in a heave last week.
Donaldson (left), the party’s current Westminster leader is seen as a more moderate figure than Poots (right). However, he trails the hardliner in declared support, and Poots remains odds-on favourite with the bookies.
Donaldson announced his leadership bid at fellow MP Gavin Robinson’s constituency office in east Belfast. The Lagan Valley MP said he would promote a “positive” strategy if elected, with a focus on building a “shared future for Northern Ireland”.
He thanked the party’s ousted outgoing leader and spoke of creating a Six County statelet which would be “making our full contribution, and enjoying the benefits, of being part of the United Kingdom.”
On Sunday it emerged that Poots would not take on the First Minister’s job if he is elected DUP leader, instead appointing Assembly colleague Paul Givan to the role as he concentrates on the leadership.
A Free Presbyterian, Givan’s hostile attitude to the Irish language helped to bring down the north’s political institutions in 2016. His abrupt announcement as communities minister of a cut in funding for Irish language Gaeltacht bursaries was described by Sinn Féin as “the straw that broke the camel’s back” in relation to Martin McGuinness’s decision to resign as Deputy First Minister.
If Donaldson won the leadership and remained as an MP at Westminster, he would also not be able take up the First Minister’s job.
A new deputy leader will also be chosen next week, replacing the former MP for North Belfast Nigel Dodds, who has said that he will step down as DUP deputy leader after the next election.
Discontent at the DUP’s Brexit strategy will be a factor in the election, with Foster having become a scapegoat among the party’s rank-and-file for the introduction of Brexit checks at ports in Larne and Belfast.
A senior Orangeman has said the new leader of the DUP should be prepared to walk away from Stormont in the fight against the port checks. Rev Mervyn Gibson, grand secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, said they should be removed by “whatever means necessary”, and suggested collapsing the Stormont Assembly and Executive.
Illegal marches and other protests by loyalist organisations have also been linked to the outcome of Brexit. Around 100 people took part in a band parade around the Rathcoole estate near Belfast last Saturday, May 1, and in Coleraine the night before.
A crowd of some 250 loyalists also gathered on the Shore Road area of north Belfast on Thursday night, May 6. PSNI officers and Land Rovers were seen in attendance, but took not action.
Although without the violence used last month, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly questioned the failure of the PSNI to intervene and of unionist politicians to call for an end to them.
He said the event was “a clear attempt to intimidate and raise tensions in the local community”.
“I will be asking what evidence gathering the police engaged in and how many people have been questioned, arrested or fined over these large protests,” he said.