DUP faces uncertain future following week of turmoil

Tensions after Edwin Poots’s election boil over amid allegations of bullying and sexism

DUP leader Edwin Poots at the British-Irish Council summit in Lough Erne Resort in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, on Friday. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

DUP leader Edwin Poots at the British-Irish Council summit in Lough Erne Resort in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, on Friday. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

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“I’m worried,” says Katie Armstrong, an 18-year-old student among the throng of shoppers under the vast glass dome of Belfast’s Victoria Square shopping complex.

“I’m worried about some of the old feelings coming up. I know a lot of older people who are still very firm in their ideas that Protestants and Catholics are separate, that they are different. I’m worried about that.”

On an overcast, muggy morning in Belfast’s city centre, others are worried too, as tensions simmer over the Northern Ireland protocol, and instability within the DUP.

Under the DUP’s new leadership of Edwin Poots, a damaging fissure has erupted in the party, with resignations and stark allegations of bullying, sexism and ageism, which party chiefs deny but have pledged to investigate.

Those loyal to MP Jeffrey Donaldson, who was narrowly defeated by Poots in a bruising leadership contest, also claim a purge is under way against them.

Among those to resign from the party this week after Poots installed mostly allies in a Stormont team reshuffle – a move denounced by several high-ranking party figures as a dangerous failure to mend bridges – is councillor Glyn Hanna.

“I think it’s really sad, it’s dreadful,” he says. “The DUP was the leading voice of unionism. I’m not sure where they are at the moment.”

Hanna resigned after being deposed as chair of the party’s South Down Association, which he claims was part of a clearout of Donaldson followers.

“I told Edwin Poots and his new deputy leader [Paula Bradley] that there was a lot of work to do to pull everything back together again,” he says.

Former DUP member Glyn Hanna is pictured in Ballymartin, Co Down. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Former DUP member Glyn Hanna is pictured in Ballymartin, Co Down. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

“But he didn’t reach out to us. The job of a leader, especially a new leader in a party that obviously has a split right down the middle of it, is to try to reach out to your membership, you try to pull them back together again, and you look for them to give you a chance to show that you can lead a united party.

“But at this moment in time I don’t believe that Edwin is doing that.”

Incendiary statement

Hanna’s daughter and former DUP Westminster candidate Diane Forsythe also resigned from the party. In an incendiary statement, she railed against “disrespectful attitudes” within the party, including “shameful sexism, ageism and the underlying tone of bullying”.

The bullying was now in “plain sight”, with members’ families “bullied and smeared” during the leadership contest, she alleged.

Poots described the handful of resignations so far as “peripheral”, but Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Doug Beattie says he has been contacted by “around 10” DUP figures tempted to defect to his ranks.

“It’s all heightened at the minute,” Beattie says. “There are people in the DUP who feel it is not the party that they joined, not the party that represents them. Some of them have approached us and are talking to us about maybe joining the Ulster Unionist Party.”

Beattie says they are “mostly” councillors and activists, but would not be drawn on any such contact with DUP MLAs or MPs.

“It’s unfair, because it is a narrower field when I talk about MLAs and MPs,” he says.

Many high-profile figures in the DUP, including Donaldson, believe the DUP is no longer a broad church and cannot be so under a fundamentalist Christian such as Poots, and that this will become only more clear as time progresses.

A “realignment” of unionism – similar to the defections of Donaldson and Arlene Foster from the UUP to the DUP in 2004 – is afoot, they say. Names mentioned as being unhappy include East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson, demoted Minister for the Economy Diane Dodds and former party deputy leader Nigel Dodds.

‘Add value’

Beattie says he is not interested in “scalps” for the sake of it, but he is looking for people “who can add value” to his party “if it suits their individual circumstances”.

“If they sat down with me and I said I want a union of people, I want to reach out, I want to create a Northern Ireland where we are comfortable with each other, where identity politics is something we push back, we don’t bring religious beliefs into the room of politics, if they could stand behind me when I gave my speeches about that vision of unionism, then of course there is a place for them in the Ulster Unionist Party,” he says.

The DUP’s policies and principles have not changed under Poots, Sammy Wilson says

“But that is a big ask, it is a huge ask to ask Arlene Foster or Gavin Robinson or Jeffrey Donaldson to make that call. It is not one for me to say one way or the other, only to say this is what I want to achieve, and if somebody wants to get onto that journey with me, then they will find a friend who will reach out to them.”

Beattie says any realignment “which would make us leapfrog them [the DUP] would be a big realignment”.

“But things change, things happen,” he adds. “Nothing is beyond possibility.”

‘Angry and hurt’

East Antrim DUP MP Sammy Wilson admits that people are “angry and hurt” in the party, but he describes the suggestion of a purge against the Donaldson camp as “nonsense”.

While there were “lots of reasons” for resignations – chiefly the manner in which Poots’s predecessor Foster was ousted as leader – he said that “it is not like they are en masse resignations, just very public in [the] wake of a contentious leadership election”.

The party’s policies and principles have not changed under Poots, he says, and the new leader “hasn’t indicated that he will be promoting anything radically different than what the DUP has always stood for”.

“I have spoken to some who are going to resign, and my hope is that after some thought they will come back to us,” he adds.

“I’m sure once we get some resignations, we may get others who are encouraged by that. They might feel if they are on one side they are obliged to do the same. I hope not.”

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