Poots faces the same situation as Foster except now there is no longer a scapegoat

The new DUP leader has promised to achieve the apparently unachievable in scrapping the Northern Ireland protocol

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

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After Edwin Poots was announced as the next leader of the DUP at the party’s headquarters in east Belfast on Friday afternoon, he and the new deputy leader, Paula Bradley, travelled to Stormont for a lap of honour.

Together they made their way down the steep incline in front of Parliament Buildings towards waiting photographers.

As Poots veered to the right – not like him, one press colleague quipped –- the snappers, mindful of their pictures, called to him to get back in the middle.

“I don’t like the middle of the road,” Poots called back.

This much has been clear in the campaign. Poots was always billed as the hard-liner, the right-wing candidate – though the distinction in the DUP between him and the “moderate” Donaldson was in reality the difference between right, and not quite so far to the right.

How precisely he intends to move to the right remains to be seen.

So far he has not taken journalists’ questions, even after his victory. Instead he read a short statement, and one-on-one interviews were cancelled.

This was in keeping with the gagging order in force during the campaign, which barred candidates from speaking to the media, but which resulted only in a flood of leaks.

Why he did not take questions – or, more significantly, what this might indicate about his leadership style – remains unclear, though the sight of Poots being ushered into a car not answering questions clashes with pledges to create a “new, fit for purpose, modern” party.

It is but another question to the many already facing the new DUP leader.

Manifesto promise

Potentially the most intractable is that of the Northern Ireland protocol, the Brexit mechanism hated by unionism and which the DUP promised earlier this year to scrap, the irony of its own hand in its creation notwithstanding.

Again, the detail is sparse – his manifesto promise was that he would “lead the campaign against the undemocratic protocol and systematically undermine and strip away all aspects of it” but he has not explained how.

Next week he travels to London for meetings. In his acceptance speech he referred to the protocol as a “massive challenge”. and issued the traditional call to unionist unity, saying that “bickering” must be avoided.

None of this addresses the fundamental bind the DUP finds itself in; that the scrapping of the protocol is not in its gift, and the UK government shows absolutely no inclination to do so.

For Poots, the circle that will have to be squared is how to reconcile this with a party – in particular, its grassroots – and to unionists in general, to whom he has promised to achieve the apparently unachievable?

Add to this other challenges – how to reconnect with the party grassroots, how to revitalise a unionism facing both a crisis of identity and, potentially, a very real crisis at the ballot box as it continues to shed votes, above all to Alliance.

Advantages

He has some advantages; he is popular with MLAs, and with both leader and deputy coming from the Assembly ranks – and the defeat of MPs for both positions – there is a clear refocusing of the party leadership towards Stormont.

Despite his rhetoric sometimes, Poots as an individual is known as pragmatic and personable, which those who backed him in the leadership election will surely hope will be of benefit come next year’s election.

Yet for all this, the situation facing Poots is the same one that faced Arlene Foster, except this time there is no longer a scapegoat. In politics, it is always easier to be in opposition; Poots may discover this sooner than later.