The Edwin Poots era – all five weeks of it – will end this weekend with the formal ratification of Jeffrey Donaldson as the new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Donaldson, a long-serving Westminster MP, takes the helm at a time when both the party and the political creed it represents find themselves in a parlous state.
The DUP, for so long the most disciplined unionist party, is in disarray. The brutal ousting of Arlene Foster as party leader, followed by the brief and ill-starred tenure of Edwin Poots, have left deep scars that will be slow to heal. The fact that Donaldson was unopposed for the leadership indicates at least some grasp among the party's warring factions that stability is urgently required, but the bitter, open divisions of recent weeks suggest a fundamental split within the party over its future direction.
Notwithstanding his social conservatism, Donaldson is, by DUP standards, something of a moderate. He also has broader appeal than Poots – a not inconsiderable advantage to a party that faces serious challenges on both flanks and would, opinion polls suggest, lose its status as Northern Ireland’s largest party if an election were to take place today.
In contrast to Poots's inaugural statement as leader last month, which neglected even to mention the North's non-unionist population, Donaldson wisely struck an inclusive tone by speaking of a Northern Ireland that would embrace those "of all identities and none".
Beyond his own party's troubles, the larger challenge that Donaldson must reckon with is the crisis facing Northern unionism as a result of Brexit. The DUP broke with majority opinion in the North by supporting the UK's exit from the EU. It then sought the hardest possible exit, opposed a deal that would have kept Northern Ireland in regulatory alignment with Britain and facilitated the rise of a man – Boris Johnson – who would ultimately, and predictably, betray it when he deemed it opportune to do so.
The DUP’s handling of Brexit, which has resulted in a customs border in the Irish Sea and rekindled debate about Irish reunification, has been a long-term strategic disaster. And it risks compounding that failure with its implacable opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol.
There is little evidence of general public uproar among unionist voters over the protocol. Instead of talking up the benefits of a deal that provides privileged access to all the key markets on its doorstep while working quietly to seek compromise on more vexing aspects of its implementation, the party has set itself forcefully against something that plainly will have to remain. That suggests the DUP has yet to learn the lessons of its Brexit debacle. Until it does, the party will struggle to convince an electorate that increasingly struggles to identify with its zero-sum view of the world.