Jeffrey Donaldson to challenge Edwin Poots for DUP leadership

Lagan Valley MP’s announcement confirms first-ever open contest to head party

Arlene Foster, with Nigel Dodds and Jeffrey Donaldson (R) outside Downing Street in June 2017. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

Arlene Foster, with Nigel Dodds and Jeffrey Donaldson (R) outside Downing Street in June 2017. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

 

Jeffrey Donaldson has announced his candidacy to become the next leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), setting up the first leadership contest in the party’s 50-year history.

The MP for Lagan Valley told reporters in Belfast on Monday that he intended to run against Stormont Minister for Agriculture Edwin Poots to succeed Arlene Foster as party leader.

Mr Donaldson (58) paid tribute to Ms Foster, who he said stood for the “politics of persuasion”, a coded reference to centre-ground voters whose support could be crucial in the event of a referendum on a united Ireland.

“We want to build a shared future for Northern Ireland where everyone, regardless of their background, has a part to play in showing the world what we are truly capable of,” he said.

Mr Donaldson’s entry into the race gives the DUP starkly different leadership choices at a crossroads for the party and Northern Ireland. Donaldson, the party’s Westminster leader, has cast himself as a moderate, unifying figure who could heal fractures in the party and appeal to a broad base of voters.

Mr Poots (55), a Young Earth creationist who believes the planet is only 6,000 years old, is rooted in the party’s Free Presbyterian heritage. He is an outspoken critic of the Northern Ireland protocol, the part of the EU-UK Brexit withdrawal deal criticised for creating a trade border down the Irish Sea, which has proven an affront to many unionists.

Dissatisfaction within the DUP with Ms Foster’s leadership erupted into revolt last week when most of the party’s 27 Assembly members and about half of its eight Westminster MPs signed letters against her.

Ms Foster subsequently said she would stand down as party leader on May 28th and as Northern Ireland First Minister at the end of June, ending a six-year tenure. She is also stepping down as an Assembly member and may leave the DUP.

Mr Poots, believed to have been instrumental in the heave, swiftly declared his candidacy and was endorsed by several Assembly members, making him the favourite in a contest that will be decided by only a few dozen Assembly members, MPs and peers. Supporters say Mr Poots already has won over a majority of Assembly members, but the claim has been disputed by Donaldson’s camp.

Centenary

Mr Donaldson declared his candidacy in the office of Gavin Robinson, a Belfast East MP regarded as liberal by DUP standards. He made his announcement on the day Northern Ireland marked a century since its foundation and the partition of Ireland.

“I am convinced that in this new century Northern Ireland’s best days are ahead of us,” he said. That meant staying in the UK. “Our next century will be built on the politics of persuasion. This will need positive leadership, strategy and values.”

Mr Donaldson is believed to have the support of Ms Foster and her Stormont lieutenants, but to succeed her as first minister he would need to sit at Stormont rather than Westminster.

Mr Poots’s beliefs have alienated nationalists and the LGBTQ community, but he is also regarded as a savvy, pragmatic politician. If he wins the leadership he plans to split the role of first minister – and earmark that post for an ally – in order to focus on restructuring the DUP.

Mr Donaldson started his political career in the Ulster Unionist Party as an aide to Enoch Powell and later defected to the DUP to protest against concessions to nationalists. Since becoming the party’s leader in Westminster his image has softened.

His leadership bid appears aimed at colleagues who take a wider view of the challenges facing unionism. Catholics may soon outnumber Protestants in the North for the first time. However, increasing numbers of people there identify as neither nationalist nor unionist, and this bloc could swing an Irish unity referendum. – Guardian