Battle to become next DUP leader too close to call ahead of vote

Candidates Donaldson and Poots both pledge tough action against Northern Ireland protocol

The North’s Minister for Agriculture, Edwin Poots (right), and his constituency colleague,  Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. Photographs: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images and Liam McBurney/PA Wire

The North’s Minister for Agriculture, Edwin Poots (right), and his constituency colleague, Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. Photographs: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images and Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

The battle to become the next leader of the DUP was said to be too close to call on Thursday night as the party prepared for its first leadership election in its 50-year history.

Its Assembly members (MLAs) and MPs – a select group of only 36 individuals – will vote on Friday to choose the party leader and, effectively, the next First Minister.

“There’s probably about seven, eight MLAs who have either told both candidates they’re voting for them, or they haven’t made their mind up, or both,” says the former DUP special adviser, Tim Cairns. “It’s going to come down to that number of people. That’s who will decide the election.”

Those two candidates are the initial frontrunner, the Minister for Agriculture, Edwin Poots, and his constituency colleague, the Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.

There is little to choose between them in terms of policy. Both have emphasised their commitment to the Union and their determination to see it strengthened; to this end, both have pledged tough action against the Northern Ireland protocol, and internal reform within the party.

“It’s a style election, because the policy differences are so small, so that’s what it’s going to come down to,” says Cairns.

'Unionism is in almost an existential crisis'

“One will be more robust – certainly that’s what Edwin Poots is putting forward – and the other will be more polished, in terms of Jeffrey Donaldson. One’s going to be more [Traditional Unionist Voice leader] Jim Allister, and one’s going to be a little more moderate than that, so it’s for MLAs to answer the question, who do they prefer in terms of representing unionism?”

“Would they be better standing on a doorstep with Jeffrey Donaldson as party leader or are they better standing on a doorstep with Edwin Poots, and that’s what it’s going to come down to.”

Yet if there are indeed any finer distinctions between the two candidates, neither the media nor the wider public was given the opportunity to uncover them.

Neither could they challenge them, or hold them to account; a gagging order by the party banned both candidates from giving interviews on the basis that the leadership election was an internal party matter.

The result was not radio silence, but a succession of leaks from both sides, such as the “phone call tonight from deep within Sir Jeffrey’s team” which was the basis for the claims reported on the BBC’s Nolan Live television show on Wednesday night that, if elected, Mr Donaldson “may” cut off all North-South co-operation, an act which in turn “may prompt others to collapse the Assembly”.

While this can be interpreted as a last-minute attempt to woo party hardliners, the problem, says political commentator Alex Kane, is that this election carries a significance which goes far beyond the DUP.

“At the very least, I think the DUP should have allowed the candidates to be interviewed, because we’re not just electing a leader, we’re electing a First Minister as well. The person who leads will appoint a First Minister, and we don’t even know who they’re going to appoint.”

“I think it’s a huge communications mistake on their part,” says Cairns. “This is a communications strategy from 2001, and if there was an indication the party needs internal change, it’s that.”

Whoever wins, this is just one of the challenges they face. This is the DUP’s first leadership election in its 50-year history; particularly if there is a narrow margin of victory, says Kane, “the first question from a journalist will be, you won by this by one vote, how deeply divided is your party?”

The problems which ousted Arlene Foster – not least the disconnect with the grassroots and the dilemma of how to lead the charge against the protocol which the UK government shows no inclination towards scrapping – will be just as real for her incumbent, as will the need for the DUP to work alongside Sinn Féin in government.

“Unionism is in almost an existential crisis,” says Kane. “It knows the protocol is an enormous problem, it knows the census figures are coming out next year, it knows that that gap between unionism and nationalism is narrowing with every election.”

As those 36 MLAs and MPs vote on Friday, all this and more is at stake; its consequences will be felt by the DUP, by unionism, and by the people of Northern Ireland and across these islands.