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Newton Emerson: Poots the odd presence in his Stormont team

DUP leader needs to get a grip on party’s message, morale and discipline

The pity of Edwin Poots’s new ministerial team is that the choice nearly works.

Designated first minister Paul Givan, education minister Michelle McIlveen and economy minister Paul Frew could come across as a breath of fresh air to weary unionist voters.

For all the retrospective praise of Arlene Foster, her time as first minister has been a disaster and was obviously staggering to a close. Outgoing education minister Peter Weir flunked the epidemic and made Northern Ireland's academic selection fiasco even worse. Outgoing economy minister Diane Dodds – an MEP until Brexit – was parachuted into a post where she failed to impress.

Responding to this week’s reshuffle, Dodds and Weir said it was unfortunate the new “balance of appointments” did not match Poots’s promises of “healing and bringing the party together”.


Both seemed oblivious to the unbalanced look of “team Foster” of which they were part.

The DUP’s widening schism over April’s leadership coup is great public entertainment but that does not mean most voters are engaged with the party’s debate about its future direction. As the split is clearly more about personalities and political styles than about policy, voters may ultimately regard it is an appalling self-indulgence at a time of unionist crisis.

Indistinguishable platforms

Poots and his leadership rival Jeffrey Donaldson offered indistinguishable platforms on the Northern Ireland protocol, the defining challenge facing unionism.

Donaldson ended up sounding slightly more hard-line to offset perceptions of being slightly too soft, but this was campaign fine tuning and everyone knew it.

The big-picture difference between both camps has been presented as a battle between liberal and conservative visions, in relative DUP terms, with Donaldson continuing in Foster’s supposedly liberal footsteps. Yet Foster was as staunch on social policy as any Free Presbyterian and evidently did not modernise the party, or even prepare it for modernisation.

If team Poots can present a fresh style at the executive and demonstrate some competent delivery, DUP voters will want the split to end and the splitters will be neutralised. This is the best and probably only hope for the party to arrest its decline.

Poots certainly needs to get a grip on the DUP’s message, morale and discipline but the idea that electoral salvation lies in a rainbow coalition of its two equally grey factions is laughable. Voters only care about cohesion, not the internal politicking of sticking a front bench together.

The DUP’s new ministers all appear able and personable. Givan, just 39, is a career politician and Paisleyite creationist who does a disarmingly convincing impression of a normal bloke. He was gracious to Foster in his acceptance speech, which was more than Poots could manage.

McIlveen has served as agriculture minister and is also a former teacher, with a masters in Irish politics. Frew, a former soldier and electrician, spent a decade working his way around Stormont’s scrutiny committees, finishing as deputy chair of finance. Intriguingly, if bizarrely, he describes himself as a libertarian.

What stops these three being a breath of fresh air is Poots remaining alongside them as agriculture minister, pretending not to be their boss.

Splitting the roles of party leader and first minister is not unknown at Stormont – Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the UUP have kept leaders off the executive. However, a leader on the executive under his party’s first minister is unprecedented, strange and potentially ridiculous. Politicians may see it as compatible with party collegiality but it guarantees the public will never consider Givan to be in charge, while undermining Poots’s credibility as well.

The roles have been split because Poots promised disgruntled DUP members he would devote himself almost full-time to party reform, rooting out the all-powerful headquarters staff they blamed for Foster’s reign of error.

So is agriculture minister a part-time job? How hard is it to replace headquarters staff? Again, to unionist voters, this must look like an appalling self-indulgence.

Odd presence

Poots’s odd presence rather than the Donaldson faction’s absence is what really unbalances the DUP executive.

Worse still is the sense of an alternative power base away from Stormont. Liberal new DUP deputy leader Paula Bradley was endorsed by Poots as an outreach gesture but has since been marginalised and forced into a humiliating statement opposing abortion. Ian Paisley MP is emerging as de facto deputy, to disquiet across the party and beyond.

Conservative consolidation may be Poots's plan. Asked by BBC Spotlight if he is worried about new UUP leader Doug Beattie mopping up liberal votes, Poots said that would be "good for unionism" because such voters would be regained from Alliance. In other words, the DUP has no hope of getting them back, so the UUP might as well have them.

Beattie has warned his party that becoming more liberal means it may have to “shrink to grow”.

The implication of Poots’s remark is that the DUP may have to shrink permanently to grow unionism. If so, he is going the right way about it.