As Edwin Poots steps forward to contest DUP leadership, Peter Robinson urges caution

Despite facing efforts by some senior DUP figures to prevent him replacing Arlene Foster as leader, momentum last night was with Edwin Poots as he became the first candidate to step forward.

Friday, 30th April 2021, 7:01 am
Updated Friday, 30th April 2021, 9:43 am

The veteran DUP traditionalist, whose father was a member of Ian Paisley’s Protestant Unionist Party before becoming a DUP Assemblyman, announced his candidacy 25 hours after Mrs Foster announced her resignation.

Two DUP sources last night told the News Letter that the Poots camp already believe they have the numbers to win, bolstered by sentiment in the party that Mr Poots played an active role in the swift and overwhelming move to remove Mrs Foster – while other potential candidates did not.

Last night councillors began publicly endorsing Mr Poots. Although they have no vote on who will be leader – that is solely down to MLAs and MPs – the move added to the sense of Mr Poots as the candidate who is firmly ahead at this point.

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Peter Robinson (left) with Nigel Dodds as Arlene Foster was anointed DUP leader in December 2015

Some of Mr Poots’ supporters expect him to be radical in reforming the party.

However, writing in today’s News Letter, Mrs Foster’s predecessor as DUP leader and first minister, Peter Robinson, cautions his party against going too far in ditching those who have been central to the party for many years.

Some DUP MLAs and MPs want to see the removal of all of Mrs Foster’s kitchen cabinet which has centralised power under her tenure – chief executive Timothy Johnston, chief spin doctor John Robinson, deputy leader Lord Dodds, and Mrs Foster’s closest spad, Emma Little-Pengelly.

In words which will be welcomed by those individuals, but which are sufficiently oblique to not make clear whether he wants all of them retained, Mr Robinson said that the party needed reform but “it must not mean ditching everything and everyone who has developed the party into the leading political force it has become”.

Mr Robinson said: “This is an opportune time for a fresh leader to move forward with a refreshed plan.

“It should incorporate an examination of every aspect of functioning within the party organisation from its local structures to its central hub.

“It means undertaking difficult conversations with representatives about what the party expects from them in relation to the level and standard of service they provide, to the order and discipline required to provide an effective political machine that can deliver on its commitments.”

Yesterday the Belfast Telegraph reported a DUP source as saying that the party top brass would “leave no stone unturned” to oppose Mr Poots’ bid to be leader.

However, just 15% of the DUP’s MLA group did not back the letter of no confidence in the leadership and last night one of those backing Mr Poots alluded to that, saying: “The 15% are scrambling around – they never thought we’d do this; they thought we’d just sit quietly forever.”

The DUP member said that two of the key people in Mr Poots’ small campaign team are North Antrim MP Ian Paisley and Upper Bann MLA Jonny Buckley.

He said that a lot of work had gone into the campaign and that Mr Poots is serious about reforming the DUP.

Last night Ken Reid, the well-connected former political editor of UTV, said: “My opinion for what it is worth ... Edwin Poots is over the line and will be the next DUP leader.”

A former DUP member who has worked closely with Mr Poots but is not a hardliner said that despite the Lagan Valley MLA’s innate conservatism, he was not as wholly in the traditionalist camp as widely perceived by many Stormont observers.

He said: “I have sat in meetings with Edwin Poots where he was most malleable and politically astute person in the room.

“If he was leader, I think he could have sold the Irish language act better than Foster.”

One of those who signed the letter to remove the DUP leadership said that one of the sources of “disgruntlement” was that there had been no leadership election – as the party’s rules demand – last year because of the pandemic, and with a leadership election mandated by the rules to occur by today, there had been no talk of even a box-ticking exercise, let alone a real contest.

The individual said: “What’s the point of having rules if you’re not adhering to them yourself? That was a manifestation of the drift.”

The politician said that the procedure for removing Mrs Foster was “harsh” but necessary.

In a video posted on Twitter and Facebook at tea time yesterday, Mr Poots said: “I am a proud Northern Ireland man, I love its people and its place, and it faces many challenging times. It’s with that in mind, I’m putting my name forward for the leadership for the Democratic Unionist Party.”

Significantly, Mr Poots indicated that he wants a public campaign – ground-breaking territory for the DUP, which has never had an electoral contest in its 50-year history.

He said: “I look forward to the engagement and the debate with colleagues and the wider public in this contest.

“Northern Ireland is a place that has had many great things over this last hundred years, I wish to see us rebuild, revitalise, reinvigorate and revive for the next hundred.”

Despite his desire for an open contest, it is not yet clear if Mr Poots will face a rival. Last night there was still no hint of another candidate declaring their hand.

Mr Poots’ Lagan Valley colleague Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP’s Westminster leader, is widely seen within the party as the most serious alternative to Mr Poots.

It is also not yet clear how the contest will be run, nor in what time frame. DUP chairman Lord Morrow, who is expected to have a key role in the process, was due to fly back into Northern Ireland last night after spending several days in London.

While Mrs Foster had been under mounting pressure from disgruntled DUP supporters for months, and the News Letter reported on Tuesday morning about the growing discontent within her party, the speed with which she was toppled appears to have caught some senior figures by surprise, and that may explain the delay in another candidate being announced.

Mrs Foster was back at her desk yesterday as she co-chaired a meeting of the Stormont Executive.

On Wednesday, she made clear that she plans to stay in post as DUP leader until May 28 and as first minister until the end of June.

l Morning View, page 16

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