Who will be in the race to lead the DUP?

Minister of agriculture Edwin Poots is viewed as most likely successor to Arlene Foster

Northern Ireland is to have a new First Minister, and the DUP a new party leader; what is far from clear is how these roles will be filled, or who might fill them.

The DUP has had only three leaders in its 50-year history. Each of the three – Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster – have been crowned rather than elected: all were appointed unopposed.

The manner of Foster’s departure following a letter of no confidence signed by a majority of MLAs and MPs has thrown open the possibility of the DUP’s first leadership election. That said, the length of time before Foster leaves office – May 28th in the case of the party leadership, and the end of June as First Minister – gives plenty of opportunity for backroom discussions and for a consensus candidate to emerge which would avoid a leadership contest.

There have also been reports that another first is being considered, that the posts could be split, with one person taking up the position of party leader and another as first minister. Under double-jobbing rules a sitting MP cannot be first minister, so this would mean an MLA as first minister and potentially a Westminster-based MP to lead the party.

If a leadership election does take place, only a small number of elected representatives will get to vote – the party's MLAs (27, or 28 including Jim Wells, who does not take the party whip) and eight MPs.

Of the potential candidates, the North's minister of agriculture, Edwin Poots, is viewed as perhaps the most likely successor to Arlene Foster.

A long-standing MLA for Lagan Valley, he is also a former minister for culture and minister for health who is known to have ambitions towards the leadership.

A creationist who does not believe in evolution, he is on the religious, Paisleyite wing of the party, and as minister of health tried to maintain a ban on gay men giving blood. 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 (TUV) leader Jim Allister has posited that his facilitation of the port checks could undermine this.


However, he is also a pragmatist – as evidenced by his eventual acceptance of his legal requirement to facilitate the port checks – which is important for the role of first minister, which requires a close working relationship with Sinn Féin.

Another representative from Lagan Valley, the MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, has long been viewed as a potential candidate for the leadership. A long-standing MP and the party's leader at Westminster, some in the DUP feel he might have thrown his hat into the leadership ring some time ago, but it remains to be seen whether his lack of assertiveness means he has left it too late.

Unlike Poots he is viewed as being on the moderate wing of the party, with an outlook more like that of Foster. Again like Foster he is a former member of the Ulster Unionists who defected to the DUP, and a hint of suspicion may persist among the traditionalists.

Nevertheless he is a strong candidate, and if the roles were to be split surely his position at Westminster MP would put him at the front of the race for the party leadership.

Also on the moderate, more progressive wing of the party is the east Belfast MP and former lord mayor of Belfast Gavin Robinson. Younger than either Poots or Donaldson and a former barrister, he is one of the party's up-and-coming stars who is seen as a capable politician and a potential leader of the future.

Though he may feel it is slightly too early for him to challenge for the leadership, it would be interesting to see the direction a younger candidate may take the party, and how he would reconcile his approach with that of the traditionalists.

Other potential candidates could include the North Antrim MP, Ian Paisley, who comes with all the credentials of his heritage and a cast-iron support base in his constituency, but is viewed as something of a maverick within his party, and whose reputation has been tarnished by controversy over failing to declare complimentary foreign holidays to the parliamentary authorities.

East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson is another hardliner who is popular with the grassroots. However, he chose not to run when Peter Robinson retired in 2015, so his opportunity may have passed.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times