Fears in DUP that reshuffle could hasten flight from party

Senior source ‘very glum about party’s prospects’ and predicts unionist realignment

Democratic Unionist Party MLA Paul Givan will replace Arlene Foster as first minister of Northern Ireland. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Democratic Unionist Party MLA Paul Givan will replace Arlene Foster as first minister of Northern Ireland. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

A number of high-profile figures in the Democratic Unionist Party are talking about potential defections in the coming weeks after a ministerial reshuffle failed to heal a deepening split in the party.

The promotion of allies of new leader Edwin Poots could herald a significant exodus from the party and “realignment” of political unionism, a senior party source has said.

“It is evident there is now a fundamentalist rump that is taking over the party, which excludes people who don’t share their firm view,” the source said.

“They appear to be determined to stamp their authority on the party and drag it back to its roots, which means the DUP now has no chance of being the largest party after the next election.”

Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan, a former special adviser and long-time constituency colleague of Mr Poots, will replace Arlene Foster as the North’s first minister, it was confirmed on Tuesday.

Mr Poots also named Gary Middleton as a junior minister; Paul Frew as economy minister, replacing Diane Dodds; and Michelle McIlveen as minister of education, replacing Peter Weir.

Reacting to her demotion on Twitter, Mrs Dodds said it was “regrettable” that the new ministerial team “does not match the rhetoric about healing and bringing the party together”.

First minister designate Paul Givan and DUP leader Edwin Poots. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP via Getty
First minister designate Paul Givan and DUP leader Edwin Poots. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP via Getty

The post was retweeted by Mrs Foster, MPs Jeffrey Donaldson and Gavin Robinson, as well as former party deputy leader Nigel Dodds.

Mr Weir said, “In the balance of appointments it is sad there is little sign of healing or reaching out.” In a sign of the severity of the rift, he added that he would remain in the DUP and “I urge others to do likewise”.

Realignment

A senior party source said “a realignment is taking place again in unionism” similar to the defections of Mrs Foster and Mr Donaldson from the Ulster Unionists to the DUP in 2004.

A number of councillors and other members have already resigned over the ousting of Mrs Foster and the perceived direction Mr Poots is taking the party.

While Mr Poots has described the resignations so far as “peripheral”, a source said talks were ongoing among some MPs, MLAs and other “senior party figures” who feel the DUP “no longer offers a broad church and the kind of unionism we espouse”.

“It is a fair chunk of the party that is very unhappy,” the source said.

“I think there is the potential for a further realignment within unionism as a result of this fracture. I think it is as fundamental as that.

“Certainly the voters are doing that right now, and the question is will that be reflected in political unionism. I think it will.

“The direction of travel for those who don’t feel the DUP provides the broad church for them any more will become evident in the days and weeks ahead.”

Asked if it could mean reverse defections to the UUP, under Doug Beattie’s leadership, the source said: “We’ll have to see.”

Mr Beattie has said he will talk to any disillusioned DUP members.

The senior DUP source predicted the party would “finish a poor second and maybe even third behind the UUP” after the next Northern Ireland Assembly election.

“People outside are looking at this and saying the new leadership doesn’t reflect their view of what unionism should be about, which is about broadening its appeal, broadening its support base, and they don’t think that is going to happen under a Poots leadership,” the source said.

“I’m very glum about the prospects of the party.”

The Arlene factor

Forecasting a drop from 28 MLAs to 17 under current poll predictions, the source said “support will slip even further before an election, especially if Stormont collapses and people start asking what precipitated this crisis”.

It was also suggested that Mrs Foster could reconsider her exit from politics when she steps down next Monday.

“There are a lot of people who will follow Arlene. The treatment of Arlene was a big issue for many of them.”

DUP East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson denied any purge against allies of Mr Donaldson, who lost the leadership contest to Mr Poots, but he accepted more resignations could be imminent.

“It could turn out very messy. I hope it won’t,” he said.

Mr Wilson said much of the “unfortunate and unnecessary” split was down to the manner in which Mrs Foster was deposed.

“I don’t think there was any need for what was done to be done, because the leadership election was coming up fairly soon anyway,” he added. “That would have been a much more dignified way of doing it.”