Dublin trying to decide the kind of DUP leader Edwin Poots will be

Meeting expected with Taoiseach in weeks before North-South ministerial gathering

To some in Dublin, Edwin Poots looks like he is presenting as the hard man who can compromise from a position of strength. File photograph: Niall Carson/PA

To some in Dublin, Edwin Poots looks like he is presenting as the hard man who can compromise from a position of strength. File photograph: Niall Carson/PA

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Dublin is trying to figure out Edwin Poots.

The new DUP leader is not an unknown quantity to the Irish Government, having operated the North-South institutions in health and agriculture. But his taking out of Arlene Foster caught Government Buildings by surprise and officials have been scrambling in the past week to assess what sort of leader Poots will be, and what approach he will take to North-South relations, the Stormont institutions and Northern Ireland protocol row.

A meeting is expected with Taoiseach Micheál Martin within weeks. Officials in Dublin were coy about timing but Poots has indicated he wants to meet the Irish Government in advance of the next North-South ministerial meetings, scheduled for mid-June.

Martin had cultivated a good relationship with Arlene Foster, despite the recent difficulties. He will have his work cut out with Poots, though Martin’s Shared Island initiative, which is to fund projects of common interest between North and South, has been well received in most unionist circles. Poots has said his door is open to contacts, echoing – presumably deliberately – Martin’s comments last weekend.

Difficulties

But Poots has also said that relations have “never been worse”. Even if that’s clearly not true, the difficulties in unionism and loyalism on the protocol have put a blockage on Martin’s softly-softly outreach to the North.

In an interview with RTÉ during the week, Poots insisted that the protocol in its entirety has to go, though he repeatedly acknowledged that the EU single market had to be protected as well. He can see plainly enough that the protocol isn’t going to be torn up – the EU won’t stand for it and the UK doesn’t want to – but he appealed for “a bit of common sense” from Dublin to fix the problems.

Officials were struck by Poots’s “let’s make a deal” approach, but they know that the voice of the DUP – as distinct from the voice of a united Northern Executive, if such a thing could be imagined – is only one part, and a small part, of the negotiations.

Nonetheless, Poots sounds more like a man more willing to accept some give and take than some of his predecessors.

“I get it that the EU wants to protect the single market and I will engage with the British government, and the Irish Government and the EU to ensure that that happens,” he said.

Political problem

But he went on to insist that having more and stricter checks in Belfast than anywhere in the EU – including the port of Rotterdam and all the entry points from eastern Europe combined – was absurd. It is a political problem and it has to be fixed, he said.

To some in Dublin, Poots looks like he is presenting as the hard man who can compromise from a position of strength – but only if he gets enough to make a deal. Others doubt that he is actually that strong at all. His party is split internally and under pressure externally from right and left.

Another senior official in Dublin says Poots has to figure out his relationship with London first; and doubts if that is “a marriage made in heaven”.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said that the checks on goods entering the North from Great Britain could be greatly reduced if the UK government signed up to a common approach on veterinary and sanitary standards on food. “A veterinary deal would sweep away 80 per cent of checks,” says one official.

Divergence

That’s where Dublin thinks the solution is, but there is no sign that the UK is going to jump that way. The approach of Boris Johnson’s government has always been that divergence from EU standards is one of the main reasons for Brexit.

“There’s a fair bit of flexibility,” says another source, “but not as much as Frost thinks”, in reference to the British minister responsible for relations with the European Union, David Frost.

One southern observer who has dealt with Poots in the past says: “I hope that he won’t be a prisoner of his campaign.” That is the first challenge for any new leader, of course. “We’ll see how he deals with that.”

So Dublin watches, and seeks to learn.