DUP leadership: Protocol on agenda as Donaldson and Poots bid for crown

As the DUP’s leadership race today enters its final furlong, Edwin Poots declined to be drawn on whether he would collapse Stormont in protest at the NI Brexit Protocol.

Friday, 14th May 2021, 6:30 am
Updated Friday, 14th May 2021, 10:50 am

The idea of abandoning the devolved institutions was floated by the Jeffrey Donaldson faction of the DUP yesterday, as a means of undermining the Irish Sea border.

When Mr Poots was asked last night is he was prepared to do likewise, he would say only that “I’m honouring the instructions of the party officers” (a reference to the DUP’s decision to prevent candidates directly discussing their campaigns with the press).

Mr Poots’ own manifesto promises that he will work to “systematically undermine and strip away all aspects” of the Protocol.

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The 36 MPs and MLAs with a vote are expected to turn up in person at DUP headquarters in east Belfast, an obscure old building down a side street

Meanwhile Doug Beattie, the man who looks set to lead the Ulster Unionists, has told the News Letter that a Stormont walk-out would leave London – influenced by politicians in Dublin – running Northern Ireland’s affairs (with ex-UUP leader David Trimble voicing similar sentiments).

It all comes as the clock ticks down to 4pm today – the time when the DUP’s polling station will close, after the only leadership contest the party has seen in its half-century history.

The winner is set to be declared at about 5pm – or earlier if all the ballots get cast quickly.

Those with a vote are expected to turn up in person at the DUP’s headquarters in Dundela Avenue, east Belfast – a rather obscure old building down a side-street, which also houses Gavin Robinson’s office.

Either Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (left) or Edwin Poots will be elected DUP leader today

Once votes are cast, it will be passed to the party’s central Executive Committee (made up of members of district associations and party officers) who are expected to rubber-stamp the result.

But since only MLAs (28) and MPs (eight) can cast a vote, that makes for an even number of electors – leading to the possibility of a tiebreaker.

It is understood that in the event of a draw, the Executive Committee will be called upon to decide the winner.

It is not just the overall DUP leader who is being picked; the MPs and MLAs will also cast a vote for deputy leader too, choosing Paul Frew, Paula Bradley, or Gregory Campbell.

One DUP insider said last night they believed the race for leader is “tight”.

And in a final piece of public campaigning (as opposed to wooing supporters internally) Stephen Nolan yesterday reported that Jeffrey Donaldson’s camp had told him “if elected DUP leader, if he has to – regarding the protocol – he will instruct the party to cut off all north-south co-operation, triggering others to collapse the Assembly”.

Confusingly, on his Radio Ulster show, Mr Nolan said the Donaldson team had further told him “they will not walk away from the Assembly – but if they don’t get the changes they want to the Protocol, the institution at Stormont might not survive because other parties will walk”.

It is not clear exactly what this means; the Alliance Party for example told the Nolan Show they would certainly not be “manipulated” into walking out of Stormont.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald also chimed in, saying the idea of destabilising the institutions was “very unwise – even though her own party collapsed the Assembly in 2017, leading to two years of limbo.

And likely UUP leader Doug Beattie told the News Letter that he would not be keen on such a strategy either.

Stressing that he was not yet in charge he said, Mr Beattie went on to say: “First of all, we don’t have the power to collapse the Assembly.

“We could walk out of the Executive. But if we walk out of the Executive, our seat would go to Sinn Fein – that doesn’t serve any purpose whatsoever.

“The second thing I’d say to this is that we just need to be really careful. What do we achieve if we collapse the Assembly? It won’t get rid of the Protocol; the Protocol will remain.

“It’ll go to London who will administer it and we’ll have no input whatsoever.

“More than that, Dublin would have a greater say in what happens in Northern Ireland – that’s already been proven to be the case.”

Lord Trimble (now a crossbench peer) said: “Why does anybody think it’s a good idea to wreck the institutions that you can influence?

“How many people in Westminster will be concerned if unionists go and do something daft? It’s a way of avoiding having to sit down and work out a strategy to achieve this...

“That means working out a strategy whereby you can persuade your government to move on it.”

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Alistair Bushe