After dispatching Arlene Foster, Edwin Poots faces a mutinous DUP

After overthrowing the old order and seeing off a late counter-insurgency, Edwin Poots was last night facing the prospect of leading a perpetually warring DUP.

Saturday, 29th May 2021, 8:07 am
Cartoonist Brian John Spencer’s take on the battle at the top of the DUP

The Lagan Valley MLA’s election as DUP leader was ratified with more than 70% of the votes at the party executive on Thursday night.

But that only came after a narrower vote to reject a secret ballot, something which supporters of Mr Poots’s leadership rival, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had pushed for, believing that it might be possible to overturn the outcome of the vote by the party’s MPs and MLAs a fortnight ago to make Mr Poots leader-designate.

Last night a senior DUP source who voted for Sir Jeffrey told the News Letter that individuals across the party were considering resignation, with some likely to go to the UUP, amid dismay at Mr Poots’s leadership.

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The source said that North Antrim MP Ian Paisley Jr’s claim on Thursday night that his father had died of a broken heart after being toppled as DUP leader in 2008 had exposed a key source of the party’s division.

They said: “Ian’s contribution was really significant in laying bare the real reason for a lot of this. It’s about returning the DUP to its roots.”

However, a source on Mr Poots’s side of the party said that it had been a power struggle and that those who until now had been the party establishment “just can’t come to terms with the fact that they’ve lost power”.

Sir Jeffrey, outgoing leader Arlene Foster, Economy Minister Diane Dodds, East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson, East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell and others then walked out during an interval in the meeting, pointedly not staying to listen to the new leader’s acceptance speech.

Former Fermanagh and South Tyrone DUP constituency association chairman Paul Bell resigned on the steps of the Crowne Plaza hotel where the meeting was happening, telling reporters that senior party figures acted to “assassinate our leader”.

However, he inadvertently confirmed something which earlier in the week Mrs Foster has questioned — the existence of the letter of no confidence which persuaded her to walk away.

Mrs Foster had said that she had not seen the letter and suggested it might not exist, but Mr Bell said: “I think that those 28 members have a lot to think about — that signed that letter [sic]”.

Veteran BBC political corespondent Gareth Gordon, who spent Thursday night at the hotel reporting on the drama, said yesterday: “The poison that’s pouring out is just incredible. It’s almost as if it’s been kept bottled up for years ... nobody is trying to hide it.”

Yesterday did not see a slew of public resignations from the party, but there was a mutinous atmosphere among many of those who opposed Mr Poots for the leadership.

Some senior figures on Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s side of the party are considering radical options.

Last night one such individual did not dismiss the idea of a string of unionist independents banding together in an alliance — although they accepted that there is not space for a fourth major unionist party.

When asked if the imperative to unite for next year’s crucial assembly election will bring the party together behind the new leader or whether the divisions are too deep to be bridged, he said: “I think it’s the latter more than the former.

“We will lose people.”

He added that it was “a huge mistake on Edwin’s part” to deny the party executive a secret vote on whether to ratify him as leader.

As the party spin about being a “family” was exposed, last night the PSNI confirmed they were investigating a complaint that members of the party had been threatened during the leadership contest

Journalist Rodney Edwards reported that Sir Jeffrey told Thursday night’s meeting that the UDA had “threatened” some of his team during the contest.

The DUP said in a statement: “There was no intimidation or bullying. Any suggestions are baseless and without foundation.

“Executive members freely expressed their opinions without fear or favour.”

Mr Poots yesterday condemned the allegation and said that the police should deal with it.

Yesterday Mrs Foster confirmed that she plans to leave the DUP and local politics entirely when she resigns as first minister.

And the DUP leader threatened to quit that post next week if Mr Poots decides to carry a reshuffle of the party’s ministerial team.

When asked if she had any regrets, she said: “All of us are going to look back and wish we had done some things differently. But it’s important to learn from that – everyone makes mistakes, but we should use the lessons from this to move forward.”

Yesterday former DUP councillor Guy Spence, who quit the party last year in circumstance which have not been publicly explained, said on Twitter: “When I felt the wrath of the twisted, bitter, hateful culture of the DUP over a year ago I asked the leadership for an investigation.

“They washed their hands and looked the other way without responding, instead focusing on spin and deflection.

“A year on, they now know what it feels like as the stench brewing on their watch has erupted all over themselves.”

Reflecting on the public strife, former DUP MLA David McIlveen said that “the ramifications for the unionist family are potentially catastrophic”.

He told the Nolan Show that 2021 was “a year in which unionism should have been rejuvenating itself” as it marked the centenary but instead the DUP was tearing itself apart.

The former North Antrim MLA said that “the only losers in this are unionism” and that for those losing positions at the top of the DUP “life will go on for them”, but unionism will suffer.

Mr McIlveen, the son of Free Presbyterian minister the Rev David McIlveen, said that “there is a culture of fear within the party” and that “no lessons have been learned” by the party since the RHI scandal.

New Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie, whose ratification as leader on Thursday was as smooth as the DUP’s was messy, said that his party was talking to at least five DUP councillors but they must “share our vision” before joining.

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