Edwin Poots must negotiate sea border and steer party in doldrums

Will DUP’s new leader be agent of change or will life after Foster be business as usual?

With leadership changes at the Ulster Unionist Party and the DUP both leaders set out to unite and inspire unionism, but in very different ways. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

Unless a deterioration in relations between the Stormont parties leads to an early collapse of the Executive, the new DUP leader has 50 weeks and five days to prepare his party for the next Assembly election.

Much of the drama since the putsch against Arlene Foster took place behind closed doors, with the DUP instructing their candidates to campaign in private, but the battle to show that Edwin Poots is listening to unionist concerns must be fought in public.

A platform to staunch the party’s self-inflicted Brexit-related wounds must be found, especially over the Northern Ireland protocol – which has led to trade checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and led many British suppliers to stop supplying NI customers.

Although access to the EU single market may have proved beneficial to some exporters, all shades of unionism have concluded the protocol represents a clear and present danger to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status.

Modifications are coming, promises Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, but softening the protocol (or “sandpapering off the barnacles” to quote Boris Johnson) is unlikely to satisfy those demanding its complete replacement.

Unionist leaders have backed a legal challenge to the protocol, arguing it breaks the UK’s Act of Union and infringes on the Belfast Agreement. However, the new DUP leader cannot just hope for a court victory. More militant politics is needed, the DUP believes.

Demanding a complete boycott of North-South co-operation, Traditional Unionist leader Jim Allister says the DUP has flip-flopped up to now, attending some North-South meetings, but staying away from others.

“If, as has patently been the case,” argues Allister “the east-west relationship has been trashed, why is there any continuation of North-South, which merely gives encouragement to the belief that unionists will just suck it all up, going on as if things never happened?”

Alliance MP Stephen Farry says such a boycott is “another dead-end” and “a foolish strategy”; but all the indications – as exemplified by the late briefing by the Donaldson camp to the BBC’s Stephen Nolan on Wednesday night – are that this is a path the DUP is likely to follow.

Former DUP Ards and North Down councillor Tom Smith, who quit the DUP two years ago, voted against Brexit, though he strongly opposes the protocol, but he now mocks his former colleagues’ protests as “waffle . . . as weak and watery as diarrhoea”.

“There’s going to be a lot of unhappy people,” he says, adding that ordinary unionists “have been sold a pup, the grassroots were led to believe if we get rid of Arlene then things will change, but from what I can see it’s going to be business as usual.

Irish language Act

“That’s going to trickle down to the grassroots, the members and councillors. They are going to be in the same boat in a couple of months’ time as they were with Arlene and that’s going to cause trouble,” he goes on.

The pledge made that the Assembly will pass an Irish language Act causes consternation in the DUP, too, and the next likely leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Doug Beattie, has made clear that he will not offer cover to the DUP.

Such a move, included in the January 2020 New Decade New Approach deal, would lead to the increased “Balkanisation” of Northern Ireland’s neighbourhoods, where language, not just flags would mark boundaries, Beattie argues.

The unease about the Act is one of the primary reasons why Foster was removed, believes Jim Allister, but he is not convinced that her replacement will veto it, since neither Donaldson or Poots said much about it in the manifestoes circulated to the DUP electoral college.

Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine progress this side of next May’s election, which will lead to accusations of bad faith by Sinn Féin. However, moderate unionist MLA Claire Sugden says the DUP’s hardening line is no surprise.

“This behaviour was always going to happen one year before an election because that’s what our parties do, they harden their positions to reassure their voters they are who they say they are,” she says. What happens after next May will be more interesting that what happens before.

If Poots steadies the ship and things do not reach 'a tipping point', the subsequent Stormont maths could be favourable

One of the letters from DUP councillors which hastened Foster’s demise called on the DUP to return to its Christian values, demanding the repeal of abortion reforms ushered through by Westminster.

It was Foster’s failure to vote against a ban on gay conversion therapy which finally triggered her removal. Sugden is not surprised by the return to old Paisleyite values, describing Christian pro-life groups as “the biggest lobby” she has dealt with in seven years.

Tom Smith, who was deselected as a DUP candidate after backing a motion to light up Ards Town Hall in rainbow colours to mark LGBT awareness week, warns that the party will lose middle-ground support if it continues on this line.

“There are very many people within the DUP who, like myself, have absolutely no issue with LGBT rights. They joined the DUP because they wanted a strong party to speak up for the union. If the DUP does retreat into a more fundamentalist form, it is going to alienate quite a lot of people,” he says.

Party’s grassroots

One challenge Poots will face over the next year which Foster did not is working alongside another politician as first minister. On the positive side, it offers time to spend with the party’s grassroots, and space to distance himself from photo images with Sinn Féin.

The downside could be that – like the outgoing Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken, who appointed Robin Swann as Stormont minister for health just before the pandemic struck – Poots might be overshadowed by a high-profile first minister.

Now, the DUP will “play up” the prospect of a Sinn Féin first minister to prevent support leaching away, since Stormont’s single biggest party appoints the first minister, but that tune may be losing its power.

“I think it’s wearing a bit thin,” says Smith, “The Bobby Storey funeral saga punctured that a bit because it showed the DUP is very reliant on Sinn Féin and if Sinn Féin misbehaves in any way what action can the DUP take?

“[Unionists] can’t get their heads around how a party which held the balance of power at Westminster has got us here. If people do what they say to me, there will be a big electoral shock. Unionists are looking for alternatives,” he goes on.

This is the DUP’s worst fear, but a former party strategist paints a more positive picture. If Poots steadies the ship and things do not reach “a tipping point”, the subsequent Stormont maths could be favourable.

In the Assembly elections four years ago, the DUP were battered because unionist voters punished them over the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, while nationalists were energised by Foster’s description of Sinn Féin’s push for an Irish language Act as “feeding a crocodile”.

Starting from such a low base, the strategist surmises, the party could have a bad day, but yet still come back with just one less seat, though the battle over the protocol will give Poots an “incredibly hard” time ahead.

However, if the DUP leadership can “turbo-charge” their campaign against the sea border without “promising things which are demonstrably undeliverable” they might navigate a way out of the party’s current doldrums, he says.