Peter Robinson: A purge of the DUP by supporters of Edwin Poots would be a monumental mistake

Colleagues within the DUP may now understand the enormous advantage of a coronation rather than a contest to determine who the party should appoint as its leader.

Friday, 21st May 2021, 6:30 am
Peter Robinson, the former DUP leader and first minister of Northern Ireland, writes a bi weekly column for the News Letter every other Friday. His next column will appear on June 4

No matter how you cut it, the last few weeks have been harmful to the DUP A bloodbath of one leader’s dismissal and a neck and neck election outcome for a new leader displaying an equal division of how members see the way ahead. As one of that ever-diminishing group of founding members of the party who met in the Ulster Hall half a century ago to launch the DUP, I hope that the party can rally and bind up its wounds.

I wish Edwin well on becoming the fourth leader of the DUP and I hope he will indulge me in offering some unsolicited advice. The key items in his in-tray have been set by the reasons given for Arlene’s removal and by promises in his leadership campaign.

His supporters expect him to maintain the Union by removing the damaging protocol, stop further concessions to Sinn Fein including the Irish Language Act, re-organise the party structures and processes and ensure the DUP wins the next election and continues to hold the First Minister’s post.

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Edwin Poots speaks just after he was elected DUP leader on Friday May 14 2021. "His failure to even reference Sir Jeffrey in his victory speech – apart from being poor form - was a missed opportunity to reach out to that half of the electoral college who didn’t vote for him," writes Peter Robinson

The expectation of his colleagues with respect to the removal of the EU protocol is high. It was anxiety about this damaging device that motivated many to support his bid to topple Arlene, but he can expect the overwhelming support and goodwill of the unionist family in his endeavour to have it ditched.

The deeply held feeling of alienation within unionism persists and Sinn Fein are still holding out for more concessions. Edwin is entitled to get support for digging-in his heels and ensuring there is a two-way street when we are dealing with important cultural matters such as an Irish Language Act, parades, flags and expressions of our Britishness.

The next Assembly election is no more than a year away. The DUP provides the only standard-bearer unionists can rally behind to stop Sinn Fein holding the First Minister’s post. The party must prepare itself logistically for that all-important contest, but more pressing will be the articulation of the policy and political positions that can maximise support within the electorate.

Significant consequences for the Union would follow the election of a Sinn Fein First Minister; it would have a serious negative impact on unionism and there would be far-reaching repercussions for the unionist parties and leaders who failed to avoid it happening. Additionally, if Sinn Fein became the largest party, they would have the first pick of the departments.

The justice department is likely to be one of their priorities so it is possible that Northern Ireland would have a republican First Minister and Justice Minister.

Of the items on his agenda, the undertaking to reform the party is the easiest to accomplish and he can make a start working on that even before he officially becomes leader. However, the other particulars will be a tougher task and may be very challenging to achieve unless he leads a united party pushing in the same direction. That’s the real point. The critical prerequisite for Edwin is to unite the party. In this, our new leader-to-be has to overcome a number of complications.

There is an undeniable sentiment held by many in the party (though there may not be many who have put it directly to him) that the unnecessarily harsh modus operandi he deployed in removing his predecessor is in bold contrast to his call for the party to unite behind him now. His detractors point out that he has not always been in the vanguard of those providing support and loyalty to leaders in the past. Yet was it not Edward Carson’s old adversary, Oscar Wilde, who said, every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future?

Those who are suspicious of him say they will be hard to convince that he will deal with those who opposed him “sensitively and delicately” as it clashes not only with the publicly embarrassing manner of his removal of his predecessor but with his supporters’ current demand that she be disposed of before the date she announced. Having left her humiliated they now want to leave her as roadkill. It would be a smart move if he were to muzzle his attack dogs who are also briefing the press about dumping ministers who voted for Jeffrey and pushing the names of his supporters as successors for these Ministries as well as for other party posts and positions.

Moreover, the failure to even reference Sir Jeffrey in his victory speech – apart from being poor form - was a missed opportunity to reach out to that half of the electoral college who didn’t vote for him. Not that words would have done it anyway, but it would have been a start.

It will not be words that will bind the party together, it will be actions. It was a further mistake to snub Jeffrey, who is the leader of the Westminster MPs, when meeting the Secretary of State and instead taking an MP who is not a post-holder but who supported him.

When there is such an even division in a leadership election it demands the most careful choices. Simply elevating supporters will confirm the reservations of doubters and ensure a lasting discord. Edwin will know that subterranean embitterment can fester before gushing to the surface. A purge within the party of staff, advisors and officers such as has been briefed would be a monumental mistake. Of course, there can and should be some changes but they must be balanced and based on discernible talent and ability. This is not a “stick it to them” moment, this is a time for generosity and discretion.

Has Edwin the capacity to heal old wounds? Certainly, he has. Will he? We will find out very soon.

Much may be in doubt but there are two safe bets — divided parties do not win elections and he will not unite unionism if he cannot unite his own party.

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Alistair Bushe