Edwin Poots beats Jeffrey Donaldson in vote to become new leader of the DUP

Winner has previously said he will not take up First Minister’s position and will appoint another party MLA to the post

Edwin Poots has won the race to become the next leader of the DUP.

Mr Poots beat his opponent, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, by 19 votes to 17, to succeed outgoing leader Arlene Foster.

The winner has previously said he will not take up the position of First Minister, and will appoint another of the party’s MLAs to the post.

The party’s chairman, Lord Morrow, announced the result at the party’s headquarters in east Belfast on Friday afternoon.


The party’s 26 Assembly members and eight MPs voted on Friday in what was the first leadership election in the party’s 50-year history.

The Lagan Valley MP, Mr Donaldson, and the North’s Minister for Agriculture, Mr Poots, were the only two candidates.

Mr Poots thanked “almighty God” for his victory when he spoke on Belfast at 4.40pm, in reference to his revelation of a cancer diagnosis in January, for which he received treatment.

In the contest for the deputy leadership, the North Belfast MLA Paula Bradley defeated the East Derry MP Gregory Campbell by 18 votes to 16. Two votes were declared invalid.

Ms Bradley, who is considered more liberal than many DUP representatives, said she might sometimes be a “critical friend” to the new leader.

The names of the leader and deputy leader designate must now go before the party’s executive for ratification, which is expected to take place around the time Ms Foster, formally stands down on May 28th.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin sent his congratulations to Mr Poots.

“His appointment comes at a critical time when it is ever more important for us to work together to keep the peace process firmly on track and to promote prosperity on both a North/South and East/West basis,” Mr Martin said.

“I wish Edwin every success in his new role and look forward to working closely with him, and all of the parties in Northern Ireland, to support peace, stability and progress in Northern Ireland and the Institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.”

Mr Poots spoke briefly to the media at Stormont on Friday evening, but declined to take any questions.

He said his his agenda was “reform, to inspire and reinvigorate unionism, and the work has now started.

“I recognise the challenges ahead for our party and for our country, in particular those identified by every unionist, namely the opposition to the protocol.”

He said he would speak to the Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis later on Friday and would hold his first meeting with him in Belfast early next week.

Mr Poots also said he would be in London later in the week “to continue those discussions with government”.

Other political leaders in the North sent their congratulations to Mr Poots, but warned him of the need to reach out beyond unionism and of the challenges presented by the Northern Ireland protocol.

The North’s Minister for Finance, Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy, told the BBC that he had no particular preference for either candidate.

“We have been suffering in the Executive from internal instability within the DUP who are one of the leading partners in government here, and I hope that settles down and we can get back to doing what the Executive have committed to do,” Mr Murphy said.

“I wish Edwin well, I have worked with him for a long number of years and I want to see him come back and work with the other four parties in the Executive.”

The Alliance Party’s Stephen Farry, MP for North Down, sent his congratulations to both Mr Poots and Ms Bradley, saying that he had known Mr Poots for quite some time and served with him as a minister.

“I have always found him personable and at times he can be pragmatic.

“But it struck me whenever he said about the priority of reaching out to unionism, I think that sets the wrong tone, it is important that he reaches out across the whole spectrum,” he said.

The SDLP leader Colum Eastwood tweeted his congratulations to Mr Poots, and said it was “time now for everyone to recommit to working together”.

The outgoing leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Steve Aiken, sent his best wishes to Mr Poots but said that while he “may try to signal his election as a new era for the DUP following Arlene Foster’s resignation...no matter what way you look at it, his fingerprints are all over the Northern Ireland protocol.

Mr Aiken said that as Minister for Agriculture, Mr Poots’ officials have been responsible for implementing the Irish Sea Border, which came into effect on January 1st as a result of Brexit.

“If the new DUP leader wishes to present the image of a ‘new’ approach, he owes us all an explanation as to how his party’s squandering of their transient period of influence has resulted in the damaging position we now find ourselves in.

“Regrettably, the so-called stewardship of the Union in the DUP’s hands has been an abject failure - not just for Unionism but for all the people of Northern Ireland,” he said.

The Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said his “key concern is that unionism, whatever the personalities, gets and remains wholly focused on the defeat of the union-dismantling NI protocol.

“Neither spin nor bluster will do it. Rather, determined political actions whereby the protocol is no longer implemented but rendered unworkable is the only hope.”

Earlier, in his acceptance speech, Mr Poots spoke of his pride in the “great place” that was Northern Ireland and the resilience of its people.

His father had been a founder member of the party, Mr Poots said, and he himself had joined the DUP in 1981 following the killing of the MP Robert Bradford.

He said that throughout its 50-year history the DUP had been the “authentic voice of unionism and will continue to be the authentic voice of unionism under my leadership.”

Mr Poots also pledged to be a leader in unionism who would be “reaching out to other leaders in unionism...we want to see unionism working together,” he said.

He said the Northern Ireland protocol had proven to be a “massive” challenge, “and if we are to fight this, to ensure that everybody in northern Ireland is not worse off as a consequence of the protocol then it is for us to do that together”.

Appealing for unionist unity, he said he wanted to “ensure that we don’t have the unionist bickering that we’ve had in the past.

“I will encourage all unionists to work with me to deliver an end which ensures that we set the foundations in this 2021 for another 100 years of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.”

Mr Donaldson offered his “most sincere” congratulations to his “friend and constituency colleague” Mr Poots, and said that in standing for leadership he had sought to offer the party a choice.

“They have made their voice and I respect that, and now the party must consider what that means for our way forward, what it means for the Union we all cherish and what it means for Northern Ireland.”

Earlier, DUP politicians cast their votes in the first leadership contest in the party’s history.

The 36 members of the party’s electoral college, made up of its MPs and Stormont Assembly members, arrived at party headquarters in east Belfast to vote for either Mr Donaldson or Mr Poots.

By 1pm, more than half of the electorate had voted in the secret ballot. Ahead of the vote, which closed at 4pm, both politicians made final pitches for support in a virtual hustings event.

Mr Donaldson had been in confident mood as he left the headquarters afterwards. “Feeling good,” he told waiting reporters as he left with Mr Campbell.

Mr Poots had been non-committal as he left. Asked what the mainstay of his leadership pitch was, Mr Poots said “reform”.

But, returning a short time later with fellow MLA and supporter Mervyn Storey, Mr Poots said he was “hopeful” of emerging victorious.

Mrs Foster, who was forced to quit after a party heave against her, also voted in the race to succeed her.

Briefly speaking to the media as she left party headquarters after casting her ballot, she said: “I voted for the person who will bring the Democratic Unionist Party forward and I think that’s very obvious.”

After the result, North Antrim MP Ian Paisley Jr described Mr Poots as a boyhood friend.

Earlier, he said his father Ian Paisley, the party’s founder, would be “immensely proud” that a democratic election was deciding the next leader.

“It’s a party that my dad founded with the name democracy in it and this is a democratic decision,” he said.

“At last the members, the elected members, are deciding who their leader is. That’s a very important decision and I know he would be immensely proud of that today.”

On the religious, Paisleyite wing of the party, Mr Poots is opposed to the decriminalisation of abortion in the North and has courted controversy over his views on evolution – he is a Creationist who believes the earth was created around 4,000 years ago – and homosexuality.

Strangford MP Jim Shannon told reporters why he was supporting Mr Donaldson as next DUP leader.

“I think Jeffrey has qualities that take him beyond Northern Ireland and across to the mainland,” he said, adding: “I think those are statesman-like qualities that the party needs.”

As he arrived at headquarters, South Belfast MLA Christopher Stalford, who was supporting Mr Poots, said: “I think it’s going to be a good day, a good day for democracy inside the Democratic Unionist Party.”

Mrs Foster, who announced her resignation last month, was ousted after pressure by party colleagues unhappy with her leadership and will step down from that role on May 28th, and as Stormont First Minister at the end of June.

The party had prevented both contenders to succeed Mrs Foster from speaking publicly about their candidature.

Party officers insisted the contest should be confined to internal campaigning among the electoral college. Information about each candidate’s pitch to party colleagues instead entered the public domain primarily via manifesto documents leaked to the media.

The campaign focused on rank-and-file concerns about DUP internal processes and structures, and wider political challenges facing unionism, in particular contentious post-Brexit trading arrangements, called the Northern Ireland Protocol, that have created new economic barriers between the region and the rest of the UK.

Unionism and loyalism have been significantly unsettled by the protocol and the emergence of the “Irish Sea border”. Significant bouts of rioting broke out in several loyalist areas last month. The political turmoil that has been unfolding within the DUP has also extended into the wider unionist family.

Last weekend, Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken also announced his resignation. Just one candidate, former Army captain Doug Beattie, has so far indicated he will run to replace him.

The looming Assembly election, which is currently scheduled for next May, has undoubtedly been a motivating factor among those advocating a leadership change within the two parties.

On Thursday, Mr Donaldson and Mr Poots both circulated eve-of-poll messages to their colleagues.

Under a “strength and experience to lead” strapline, Mr Poots insisted he has the “right plan to reform our party” and to “reinvigorate unionism”.

Mr Donaldson’s final message to voters included a pledge to stand in the next Assembly election and become First Minister himself. He promised “major changes” and “greater participative structures” within the party, and pledged to provide “united leadership to unionism and the country”.

Mr Donaldson and Mr Poots were allocated 10 minutes each to speak to the electoral college on Friday morning. The contenders to succeed Nigel Dodds as deputy leader, Mr Campbell and Ms Bradley had five minutes to make their case.

Paul Frew, who had been vying for the deputy leader, withdrew from that race on Friday. - Additional reporting PA

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times