Unprecedented display of a not-so-secret schism within the DUP

‘Arlene Foster fought off the IRA, and now her own party has stabbed her in the back’

When Jeffrey Donaldson dramatically defected to the Democratic Unionists 17 years ago from the Ulster Unionist Party it was a Godsend for Ian Paisley’s firebrand party.

His transfer from the then establishment UUP along with Arlene Foster would bolster and broaden the appeal of the more evangelical DUP among the North’s unionist electorate.

On Friday the UUP’s newly-ratified leader, Doug Beattie, would not scotch suggestions of welcoming the Lagan Valley MP, who tried and failed to win the DUP leadership, back into the old fold.

“I really like Jeffrey, I think he has got an awful lot to offer,” he said. “If Jeffrey were to come to me – and we are friends, and he knows he can have a conversation with me anytime, and we do regularly – but if Jeffrey comes to me we can talk about things.”


The backdrop was an unprecedented display of a not-so-secret schism within the DUP.

In a south Belfast hotel on Thursday evening, Edwin Poots, a Free Presbyterian creationist who has commanded the support of traditionalists within his party, was formally ratified by the party’s executive as its new leader.

Beattie, meanwhile, was at home opening a bottle of single malt Scotch, toasting his uncomplicated coronation as new leader of unionism’s formerly dominant voice.

Poots had thought his own ratification would be straightforward, but on the night a secret ballot was demanded.

This was put to a vote, with the Poots camp vehemently opposed to the suggestion, and in the end winning – by a slim enough margin of 56 to 47 – an open show of hands on his leadership.That show was more decisive – 72 in favour of Poots’ ratification to 28 against.

Before he took to his feet to formally address his party as the new leader, a number of big names in the party walked out.

Arlene Foster, Donaldson, and East Derry MP Gregory Campbell didn’t wait to hear his words. Nor did Stormont’s Economy Minister Diane Dodds or her husband, the former DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds.

Walked out

Paul Bell also walked out. A DUP member for 20 years and former chair of Foster’s Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency association, he declared to reporters on the threshold of the hotel entrance that he was resigning.

“It was the way it was done, “ he said of Foster’s ousting.“Arlene Foster fought off the IRA and now her own party has stabbed her in the back.”

He said “tens of thousands” of votes would be lost to the party.

A near-emotional Ian Paisley Junior denied any big rift in the party his father founded, often referred to as a family. But “leadership transfer hurts”, he offered.

So much so that his father went “to his grave with a broken heart” when he was replaced as leader by Peter Robinson. “I saw what happened to my dad, it killed my father...I know it hurts.”

Before the meeting Foster had lunch with Henry Mance, the chief features writer with the Financial Times.

Over a glass of wine with seafood, the outgoing First Minister said she no longer trusted the DUP.

She does not agree “with the direction of travel under Edwin’s leadership”, she told the newspaper. “I think we are regressing and becoming more narrow. It’s quite nasty, frankly.”


On a remark by Poots when she was selected as First Minister five years ago that her “most important job” remained “that of a wife, mother and daughter”, Foster was asked if her successor had ever apologised.

“Not at all,” she said.

Meanwhile, Beattie, a former military captain who trades on his liberal credentials, says he has been talking to a number of DUP councillors over the past two weeks about possible defections.

Not dozens but more than five, he says.

“Our door is always open to people who want to come to the Ulster Unionist Party but if they want to do so, they come understanding the Ulster Unionist Party values and I will talk to them or anyone who wants to come to make sure they understand that before I offer them the ability to join the Ulster Unionist Party.”