The Irish Times view on the DUP leadership: a chance for the centre ground

Edwin Poots has declared the removal of the Northern Ireland protocol as his primary objective but how that is to be achieved is a mystery

With leadership changes at the Ulster Unionist Party and the DUP both leaders set out to unite and inspire unionism, but in very different ways. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

On the face of it the election of Edwin Poots as the next leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is a step backwards towards a more confrontational style of politics which could make the maintenance of the power-sharing executive more difficult and will inevitably lead to even less North/South co-operation. His election marks a decision by the party to retreat to its heartland and that will have profound consequences for Northern Ireland and the future of unionism.

Poots has declared the removal of the Northern Ireland protocol as his primary objective but how that is to be achieved is a mystery. The protocol is part of an international treaty between the European Union and the United Kingdom and however reckless British prime minister Boris Johnson appears at times he is unlikely to tear it up and begin a trade war with his country’s biggest market.

At the heart of the DUP’s rage at the protocol is the fact that it came about as a direct result of the party’s foolish decision to vote down the deal with the EU agreed by Theresa May which would have ensured that Northern Ireland was treated in the same way as the rest of the UK.

Minister for Finance Arlene Foster: said while North had benefited from chancellor’s decision to protect health and education in England, the Executive would still face difficult decisions ahead. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
"The DUP faithful will inevitably be disappointed when the new leader proves no more successful than Arlene Foster in persuading the British government to abandon the NI protocol." File photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

That appalling political miscalculation led to the elevation of Johnson and ultimately the imposition of an economic border down the Irish Sea. While the implementation of that economic border can probably be tweaked to minimise its impact on the people of the North, the principle will remain and it is the principle which is at the heart of the DUP’s opposition.

The elevation of Poots could well increase the potential for the growth of a strong middle ground alternative to the DUP and Sinn Féin

A lot of huffing and puffing about the protocol can be expected from Poots in the coming months but whether that will impress the electorate in Northern Ireland is a moot question. The DUP faithful will inevitably be disappointed when the new leader proves no more successful than Arlene Foster in persuading the British government to abandon the protocol.

Instead of re-energising the party as he has promised, Poots may see much of its core support continue to drift to the Traditional Unionist Party of Jim Allister. At the other end of the spectrum it may encourage unionist voters who would like to see a more rational, inclusive approach to politics to move to the Alliance Party. It was been widely noted that Poots, in his first speech as leader designate, did not even refer to nationalists – with whom his party runs Northern Ireland – or to the Republic. Perhaps even more striking was the absence of any attempt to speak to the centre ground of Northern politics.

In the long run the elevation of Poots could well increase the potential for the growth of a strong middle ground alternative to the DUP and Sinn Féin. An increasing number of younger voters are open to a new brand of politics. It would be ironic if the election of a hardline DUP leader helped to undermine the appeal of tribal politics.

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