Edwin Poots may be unlikely saviour of Belfast Agreement

London, Dublin, the European Commission and UUP should help DUP leader

DUP leader Edwin Poots could be facing a form of direct rule under Boris Johnson and, almost certainly, a cementing into permanence of the protocol. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes

DUP leader Edwin Poots could be facing a form of direct rule under Boris Johnson and, almost certainly, a cementing into permanence of the protocol. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes

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The truly strong leader, to paraphrase Machiavelli, has the numbers to face down and see off internal critics and rivals, as well as the courage and wisdom to prioritise the pragmatic solution when necessary. Edwin Poots required 19 votes to secure the leadership of the DUP. That’s exactly what he got.

His supporters – a couple of whom only came aboard at the last minute – are wary of pragmatism, mostly because an election is due within months and they fear for their seats. It was that wariness which led to the brutal overthrow of Arlene Foster: and that wariness which means his room for manoeuvre is barely visible.

Doug Beattie won the UUP leadership without a contest. He is the third leader in a row to come to the role that way. His two successors managed just 30 months and then 18 months. It’s a job nobody seems keen to do. The real problem is that the party wants an immediate increase in votes and seats, but doesn’t want to embrace the risks and realities involved in restoring its fortunes.

Beattie’s instincts are to push his party further away from the DUP and onto standalone territory: but it’s not the majority view of his grassroots, meaning he hasn’t much wriggle room, either.

Some of the rhetoric and promises made during the leadership campaign will be difficult to dial down

It’s an uncomfortable place for unionism to be just weeks away from the centenary of the first sitting of the NI parliament in June 1921. Mind you, it has been fairly uncomfortable since March 2017, when it lost its overall majority in the successor to that parliament and then found itself lumbered with the protocol a few months ago.

Neither leader comes close to matching Machiavelli’s definition of strong and both are likely to be dumped if they don’t deliver results pretty quickly. The fact they are in their roles after sudden coups indicates the scale of the crisis unionism faces.

At the apex of that crisis is the protocol. Poots, despite his reputation as a hardliner, has proved himself remarkably pragmatic over the years, but some of the rhetoric and promises made during the leadership campaign will be extraordinarily difficult to dial down, particularly with so much pressure on the DUP in loyalist heartlands.

The party only has a one-seat advantage over Sinn Féin in the Assembly and that lead will disappear if on-the-ground organisations like the Orange Order and Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) – an umbrella organisation representing the three paramilitary groups which supported the Belfast Agreement in 1998 – perceive weakness in Poots.

The Orange Order, LCC and a younger element of loyalism – organising pop-up protests – seem content for the Assembly to be collapsed if the protocol isn’t removed. That’s a major problem for Poots, because he knows that the alternative is a form of direct rule under Boris Johnson and, almost certainly, a cementing into permanence of the protocol.

But how does he persuade anti-protocol hardliners to step away from the crash-and-burn-strategy when that would probably fuel distrust in him and maybe even ratchet up protests when the traditional “marching season” (lasting about three months) is just about to start?

He will need help. A few days ago Simon Coveney noted: “I think there is a pressure that we find a way to come up with solutions by some point in June, and I think the European commission is very much aware of that and I’m sure the British government is too.”

‘Wolf, wolf’ has been shouted so often – and by both sides – that too many people believe the wolf doesn’t actually exist

If that solution isn’t found, then it becomes increasingly likely that Poots will lose control of both the streets and the agenda to organisations he cannot control. And if that point is reached and pressure mounts on him to abandon the Assembly, then it is also increasingly likely that unionism ruptures and the entire Belfast Agreement process could unravel.

It would be in the collective interests of the British and Irish governments, along with the European Commission and UUP, to help Poots. He supports devolution, he has proved very adept at working with Sinn Féin and he will be flexible in the pursuit of a deal he can sell. As will Doug Beattie.

But he must be able to convince the governments and commission of the nature and scale of unionist/loyalist concerns: at the heart of which is a very clear perception that their constitutional status has been undermined and their place within the UK diminished. If those concerns can be acknowledged and addressed then some sort of UK-EU remedy becomes possible. If not...

In turn, Poots can begin to reassure key players in the Orange Order and LCC that their concerns have been heard and heeded: as well as being particularly blunt with them about what happens if the Assembly falls and the disconnect between unionism/loyalism and the Belfast Agreement passes breaking point.

That’s the seriousness of this crisis: a crisis which predominates and eclipses all previous crises which have threatened the peace/political process. The problem is that “wolf, wolf” has been shouted so often – and by both sides – that too many people believe the wolf doesn’t actually exist. It does. And the two governments and commission would be unwise to dismiss its shadow.

Poots’ instincts are, I think, to resist the wolf and save the process. But he cannot do it alone, not least because there are minority interests within unionism/loyalism who side with the wolf. So maybe it’s time all the voices claiming to champion the process recognised the potential importance of Poots right now. He may yet turn out to be the unlikely saviour of the Belfast Agreement.

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