The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Northern Ireland’s largest party, has been in turmoil for weeks over a change in leadership.
The former leader, Arlene Foster, resigned last month after a majority of DUP representatives signed a letter expressing lack of confidence in her leadership. This triggered the first leadership election in the DUP’s fifty-year history, ending a few weeks ago with the bitterly won victory of Edwin Poots over Jeffrey Donaldson. It was a tumultuous series of events for a party normally notorious for its smooth operations and message discipline.
Mr Poots’ leadership has had an very rocky start. He is widely perceived as an extremely reactionary figure. He notoriously holds creationist and anti-evolution views. In 2007 he told journalist Matthew Parris on live radio:
“We’ve had lots of explosions in Northern Ireland and I’ve never seen anything come out of that that was good. And you look at this earth and you tell me that there was a big bang and all of a sudden all that is good about this earth came out of it?”.
When asked in the same interview if he didn’t believe in evolution he replied “Yes, absolutely”. He also fought a long-running legal battle as Health Minister to attempt to block men who have sex with men from being able to donate blood.
Mr Poots may also have a difficult relationship with the Irish nationalist community. He faced accusations of sectarianism in 2020 for claiming Coronavirus rates were higher in nationalist than in unionist areas. Poots also previously claimed, “I hold my nose” when working with Sinn Fein. His campaign was mired in controversy when a supporter said his leadership would see the Sinn Fein deputy First Minister “put back in her kennel”.
Perhaps because of these controversies, Mr Poots’ first opinion polling as leader has been disastrous. A poll by LucidTalk showed the DUP had fallen to 16% in the polls, behind Sinn Fein and tied in second place with the Alliance Party. Rival Unionist parties the Ulster Unionists (UUP), now under new leader Doug Beattie, and the hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), have seen poll increases. This will be of concern to the DUP as it indicates they are being squeezed from both ends and losing both conservative and moderate voters. 29% of former DUP voters said they would now vote TUV while 10% said they would vote UUP. Previous polling has already shown that the DUP is also leaking voters to Alliance, perhaps over its hard line social conservatism.
Mr Poots’ own personal ratings were particularly dire. 62% of respondents rated him as bad or awful, putting the new leader behind Arlene Foster and making him the worst rated party leader in Northern Ireland. Even amongst DUP supporters, 64% said they would have voted for Donaldson as leader compared to just 21% for Poots.
The election itself was extremely bitter. The Fermanagh and South Tyrone DUP Association have publicly criticised the removal of Arlene Foster, saying “This was not done in our name”. The DUP MP Gavin Robinson hit out at a misogynistic campaign against his wife on social media. The defeated candidate Jeffrey Donaldson alleged members of the illegal paramilitary UDA had threatened members of his campaign.
There was an unprecedented attempt at a coup against Mr Poots last week before he had even formally begun as leader. Things came to a head at a meeting to formally ratify Mr Poots’ election. Supporters of Jeffrey Donaldson mounted an attempt to hold a secret ballot, apparently believing this would open the possibility of overturning the election. When this was defeated, senior DUP figures, including Jeffrey Donaldson, Arlene Foster, Gavin Robinson, Economy Minister Diane Dodds and Gregory Campbell MP, walked out of the meeting. There is now serious talk that some of these figures may leave the DUP altogether, either to join the UUP or to form a breakaway faction. Arlene Foster has apparently confirmed her intention to leave the DUP. The former chairman of her constituency party dramatically resigned following the vote.
This has been perceived as an ideological split, with Donaldson’s supporters representing the more moderate faction within the DUP. Many of the figures involved were associated with Peter Robinson’s ‘New DUP’, a political project which aimed to soften the DUP’s traditional image and make it a more modern force. Arlene Foster’s leadership was in some ways the completion of this project. Both she and Jeffrey Donaldson were former members of the UUP. In this vein, the effective coup by Edwin Poots has been seen as a revolt by Paisleyites who have never forgiven this faction for their overthrow of Ian Paisley Snr in 2008. One DUP source told the Belfast Newsletter that Ian Paisley Jr’s claim that his father had never recovered from his ousting reflected that the Poots leadership campaign was really about returning the DUP to its Paisleyite roots. It has also been suggested that rather than an ideological clash, the Poots campaign is an uprising against a clique that has become party aristocracy. Jeffrey Donaldson had become the anointed leader of this clique, and it has been alleged that they now cannot accept their defeat.
A further problem is the Irish Sea border. DUP hardliners hope Poots can help achieve an end to the hated Northern Ireland Protocol. However, it is difficult to see exactly what he can do to force a revision of the protocol, which is in the hands of the European Union and the British government. Now, faced with a large Tory majority, the DUP holds little of the national power it did between 2017 and 2019. 74% of DUP voters apparently believe the party should be willing to take actions that could collapse the devolved administration at Stormont. It is unclear where this would leave a Poots-led DUP. Elections following such an event look as if they would be painful for the party. A refusal to participate in Stormont would simply leave Northern Ireland under the direct rule of a government that has already shown its willingness to throw Unionist interests under the bus.
Mr Poots is thus starting off with a desperately split party, poor polling, archaic and unpopular attitudes and a base that will expect him to deliver far more than he reasonably can. It is not an enviable position.
Ed: Eoin is an MSt (History) Student at Wadham College, Oxford