Edwin Poots has long harboured a desire to lead the DUP

North’s Minister for Agriculture is regarded as the front-runner in the race to succeed Arlene Foster and is currently the bookie’s favourite

Edwin Poots with Arlene Foster: he is the first candidate to officially declare an interest in contesting the DUP leadership

Edwin Poots with Arlene Foster: he is the first candidate to officially declare an interest in contesting the DUP leadership

 

Thursday was a busy day for Edwin Poots. According to the press releases sent out by his department, the North’s Minister for Agriculture announced a £3.45m support scheme for flood-hit farms in the Glenelly valley in Co Tyrone; there was also a £336,000 support scheme for Lough Neagh fishermen and a financial package for potato growers.

One might even think the Minister was on the campaign trail; which of course he was, though the official announcement did not come until later in the afternoon.

The first candidate to officially declare an interest in contesting the DUP leadership, Poots is regarded as the front-runner in the race to succeed Arlene Foster and is currently the bookie’s favourite, though at least two bookmakers have both him and Jeffrey Donaldson at 6/4.

In the video message announcing his candidacy on social media, the Minister for Agriculture said he was a “proud Northern Ireland man. I love this people and this place, and it faces many challenging times.

“It is with this in mind I’m putting my name forward for the leadership of the Democratic Unionist Party. ”

No surprise

The move came as no surprise; Poots has long harboured a desire to lead the party, and it has been reported that he spent Thursday – other engagements aside – canvassing support among party colleagues.

This is where the battle will be won. Whether or not the contest goes to a vote, it will be the party that decides. In the case of a leadership election, it will be decided by the DUP’s MLAs and MPs, which, given Poots’ long-standing presence in the Assembly, is surely to his advantage.

One DUP source described Poots as clearly ahead of the other potential candidates, but also said there was widespread support within the party for separating the roles of party leader and First Minister.

The source was in “no doubt” the party would prefer to reach an internal consensus on the next leader – and deputy leader – rather than have a potentially damaging leadership contest.

Poots comes with plenty of experience and impeccable credentials. From a farming background, his father was one of the founding members of the DUP; he has been an MLA for Lagan Valley since 1998 and held several ministerial portfolios, including Culture, Health and, currently, Agriculture.

On the religious, Paisleyite wing of the party, he is opposed to the decriminalisation of abortion in the North and has courted controversy over his views on evolution – he is a Creationist who believes the earth was created around 4,000 years ago – and homosexuality.

Strong opponent

As Minister for Health he tried to maintain a ban on gay men giving blood which had been lifted elsewhere in the UK, a ban later found by the High Court to be “irrational”, and also opposed same-sex couples being allowed to adopt children.

He is also a strong opponent of the Northern Ireland protocol and the Irish Sea border, and tried to prevent the construction of infrastructure for carrying out physical post-Brexit checks at the North’s ports in his capacity as minister.

His traditionalist credentials could play well among those who opposed the softer line taken by Foster, though the Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister has posited that his facilitation of the port checks could undermine this.

Yet as his eventual acceptance of the legal requirement to facilitate the checks demonstrates, he is also a pragmatist; as Minister for Health he reached a cross-Border agreement on children’s heart surgery which led to sick children from the North being treated in Dublin.