The Irish Times view on Northern Ireland politics
For Dublin and London, a distracted DUP leader is a bigger problem than an intransigent-sounding one
Dublin will be encouraged by the fact that, beneath his reputation as a conservative hardliner and his bellicose rhetoric, Poots has also shown a pragmatic streak. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Most political leaders, having narrowly taken the helm of a divided party, would move to mend relations and proclaim unity. Not Edwin Poots. Having won the leadership of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) by just two votes after the swift and brutal defenestration of Arlene Foster, Poots this week purged Foster’s allies from the party’s line-up at the Stormont Executive and replaced them with his own supporters. Some party members have already defected. More worrying for Poots are rumours that senior figures could follow. If that were to happen, unionism could be facing the sort of political realignment that last occurred when Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson abandoned the Ulster Unionist Party as the DUP was about to overtake it at the polls.
Poots’s approach to Dublin has been at once confrontational and constructive. He has been scathing about Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney over their handling of Brexit and has claimed North-South relations have never been worse. But he spoke warmly of Taoiseach Micheál Martin after their meeting and agreed to take part in the next meeting of the North-South ministerial council.
Dublin will be encouraged by the fact that, beneath his reputation as a hardliner and his bellicose rhetoric, Poots has a pragmatic streak. As Northern Ireland’s minister for agriculture, he worked the North-South institutions effectively. In no policy area has he indicated any break with Foster-era positions. And while the focus has been on his demand that the Northern Ireland protocol be abandoned, he has been careful to position himself for compromise by indicating that a deal can be struck that unionists could live with.
The relatively muted quality to Poots’s comments on Sinn Féin has been striking. He has struck a positive tone on the prospect of enacting Irish-language legislation. For a man who clearly sees his party’s recovery as his key task as leader – his decision not to become first minister himself is proof of that – all of this makes strategic sense. A failure to move on the language Act would risk Sinn Féin triggering an election by refusing to nominate a deputy first minister. That would be a nightmare for the DUP, which is reeling from its acrimonious transition. On current trends, the three-way split in the unionist vote would help make Sinn Féin the largest party at the next Assembly elections, giving it the symbolically important office of first minister.
For Dublin and London, a distracted DUP leader is a bigger problem than an intransigent-sounding one. The Stormont institutions are fragile; to succeed they need constant and careful tending. The DUP’s internecine warfare is currently a problem for the party itself. But if it begins to destabilise the Executive, it will be a problem for Northern Ireland and beyond.