After 22 days Edwin Poots quits as DUP boss: here’s how it happened

Edwin Poots is set to stand down as DUP leader following an internal revolt against him.

Thursday, 17th June 2021, 9:17 pm
Updated Friday, 18th June 2021, 11:43 am

Mr Poots was voted in as Arlene Foster’s successor on May 14, following a revolt against the former First Minister by supporters of Mr Poots.

He was formally ratified as leader on May 27, meaning he officially served just 22 days in the role (including Thursday).

Ian Paisley led the DUP for 37 years, Peter Robinson for about seven-and-a-half years, and Arlene Foster for roughly six-and-a-half.

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DUP leader Edwin Poots (top) leaving the Chamber after nominating Paul Givan (bottom right) as First Minister, in the Stormont Assembly in Parliament Buildings in Belfast. Picture date: Thursday June 17, 2021.

His planned departure follows a dramatic 24 hours.

The trouble began flaring on Thursday when a sizeable majority of MLAs and MPs voted against his decision to revive the powersharing Executive with Sinn Fein, in a bruising internal meeting just minutes before the process for nominating Stormont’s leaders began in the Assembly.

Members were furious that Mr Poots had pressed ahead with nominating Paul Givan as First Minister, after Sinn Fein secured a key concession from the UK Government to legislate for Irish language laws at Westminster (details of the DUP members’ stern e-mail to Mr Poots are on the following page).

The row has its roots in January 2020, when the DUP signed up to the New Decade New Approach deal, which set out a way to resuscitate Northern Ireland’s government.

Edwin Poots leaves the DUP headquarters in Belfast after he said he will stand down as the party leader following an internal party revolt against him. He was facing questions about his leadership future after a significant majority of the party's elected representatives opposed his decision to reconstitute the powersharing Executive with Sinn Fein. Picture date: Thursday June 17, 2021.

It included an agreement to pass a new law, officially recognising the Irish language in NI and creating an Irish language commissioner, with similar measures for Ulster-Scots too.

Sinn Fein’s president Mary Lou McDonald, unimpressed by signals that Mr Poots was not inclined to make such a law a priority, demanded that the Tories in London step in.

This led to the announcement in the very early hours of Thursday by the Government, saying Westminster would indeed pass an Irish language act if the Stormont Assembly failed to do so by autumn.

This was enough to convince Sinn Fein to drop its threat not to nominate a deputy First Minister, and it went ahead with Michelle O’Neill.

There had been deep disquiet among unionists over the threat of the Tory leadership in Westminster to once again enforce new laws upon the Province, side-stepping the Assembly.

Earlier in the week, speaking to this newspaper, Sammy Wilson gave a flavour of the storm that was brewing, saying that London had already disregarded devolution with abortion, gay marriage, and the NI Protocol – and that such “humiliations” should not be tolerated by “any self-respecting political party or politician”.

A day later Gregory Campbell went further, telling the News Letter that Boris Johnson imposing a language act on Northern Ireland could lead to “more protests, larger protests, and – more fundamentally than anything, the potential for those to turn violent”.

Then on Thursday night, at the DUP’s headquarters in a quiet residential street in the Dundela district of east Belfast, a meeting of DUP party officers got under way at around 5pm, amid speculation Mr Poots could potentially face a vote of no confidence.

Mr Poots left the meeting after 8pm, saying only “how are you” to gathered media before being driven off in a waiting car.

The remaining DUP party officers left the meeting at their headquarters at 8.50pm, all departing together.

The statement confirming Mr Poots’ intention to stand down was issued at 9pm.

It read as follows: “I have asked the party chairman to commence an electoral process within the party to allow for a new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party to be elected.

“The party has asked me to remain in post until my successor is elected.

“This has been a difficult period for the party and the country and I have conveyed to the chairman my determination to do everything I can to ensure both unionism and Northern Ireland is able to move forward to a stronger place.”

There had been early signs of just how much discord had built up within the party when a beaming Sammy Wilson arrived at the HQ.

Asked if Edwin Poots would survive a vote of no confidence, Mr Wilson said: “I think that any leader who doesn’t have the confidence of party officers and didn’t have the confidence of their Assembly group and their MPs will find it very difficult to stay in their position.

“You cannot lead people who are not following you.

“If you have no followers, you can’t be a leader, can you?”

Asked if Paul Givan would remain as First Minister if Mr Poots lost the confidence of his party, Mr Wilson added: “Again, that’s the issue. If Edwin is no longer leader, then whoever did become leader would have the choice of the First Minister.

“These are all decisions we have got to make.

“The one thing I can tell you is that there is no appetite for a situation where we have an Assembly which can have its powers stripped from it by the Secretary of State at a whim simply because Sinn Fein demand that they get something that they can’t persuade others in the Assembly to deliver for them.

“That is no basis to have devolution.

“They wouldn’t do it in Scotland, it wouldn’t be tolerated in Wales. It shouldn’t be tolerated by anybody.”

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Alistair Bushe