DUP revolution looms as party elects Edwin Poots as leader, in blow to party establishment

The revolt which toppled Arlene Foster last night continued as the party elected Edwin Poots and Paula Bradley as its leader and deputy leader, rejecting senior figures closer to the party establishment.

Saturday, 15th May 2021, 6:44 am
Edwin Poots and Paula Bradley last night celebrated their election as DUP leader and deputy leader respectively

In what Mr Poots’ supporters see as part of a revolution which goes far beyond ousting Mrs Foster and Nigel Dodds, the Lagan Valley MLA is now expected to reform the DUP in line with his pledge to curb the vast power of unelected party workers.

Mrs Foster made little secret of her views yesterday as she cast her vote at DUP headquarters, saying that she “voted for the person who will bring the DUP forward and I think that is very obvious”.

But in a reversal of the political wisdom that he who wields the knife never wears the crown, Mr Poots was rewarded by the party after playing a central role in toppling Mrs Foster.

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Just three months after leaving the Executive for cancer surgery and five months after contracting coronavirus in the wake of surgery for a burst appendix, Mr Poots defeated Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, left, by 19 votes to 17.

However, while Mr Poots’s election is seen as a move to the right by the DUP, the party’s MPs and MLAs elected their most liberal member, Paula Bradley, as his deputy – she defeated party veteran Gregory Campbell by 18 votes to 16.

Last night DUP MLA Jim Wells said he abstained on that vote.

The new leader had been expected to do a series of in-depth interviews with media outlets from the BBC to the Financial Times, but those were called off at short notice.

Instead, Mr Poots only said a few words to reporters and took no questions after an overwhelmingly internal first leadership contest in the DUP’s half-century history.

The victor has already pledged not to make himself First Minister, but there has been no public confirmation of who that might be, with speculation about everyone from Paul Givan to Mervyn Storey and Paula Bradley.

In his acceptance speech he pledged that the DUP would be the “authentic voice” for unionism.

“It is an immense honour and pleasure to stand here today in this position, it is not a position that I expected to be in some weeks ago,” he said in a brief address at the party’s Dundela Avenue headquarters in east Belfast.

“However, things can change quite radically.”

Mr Poots, whose election will now have to be ratified by a meeting of the DUP executive, added: “I’m looking forward to a positive relationship right across Northern Ireland with my party colleagues and indeed with people from other parties. I think the opportunities for Northern Ireland are great, the opportunities for us to make Northern Ireland a great place after this 100 years has passed and we move into a new 100 years.”

Mr Poots praised the “resilience” of Northern Ireland people through the decades.

“It’s that resilience that we are going to go forward (with) and make Northern Ireland a good place,” he said.

“My father was a founder member of the DUP some 50 years ago, and I joined after the death of the Reverend Robert Bradford MP in 1981 and throughout all of that period this party has been the authentic voice of unionism and will continue to be the authentic voice of unionism under my leadership.”

After his narrow defeat, Sir Jeffrey said he had no regrets about standing in the race.

“What we sought to do was to offer the party a choice and I have no regrets about putting my name forward to give the party a clear choice in the decision they had to make,” he said.

“And they have made their choice and I respect that and now the party must consider what that means for our way forward, what it means for the Union that we all cherish and what it means for Northern Ireland, this place that is my home, a place that I love.”

Ms Bradley said: “I will support our leader in any way I can.

“I may be a critical friend at times to our leader, but what more could you expect from me other than that.”

She added: “There’s a lot of hard work that we need to do but I think if we remain focused and we remain grounded within our communities and know those issues that our communities have to face then we can meet that challenge and can rise to that challenge and take our great party forward.”

Last night an ecstatic Jim Wells, who has been in the DUP for almost half a century, was celebrating Mr Poots’s victory by leading a tour of Rathlin Island’s nesting birds, hoping to spot puffins and white-tailed eagles, he told the News Letter.

“I’m happy on so many levels. I’ve known Edwin for 40 years. He will be much more approachable. He gets it as far as the traditions of the DUP are concerned, but equally comes with vast ministerial experience – the only person with more ministerial experience is Arlene Foster.”

Mr Wells predicted “dramatic changes” in how the DUP operates: “Edwin Poots is dedicated to a complete overhaul of the party from First Minister down to local branches.

“He is determined to have a complete root and branch change of the party to undo so many issues which have accumulated over the years and haven’t been tackled.”

Last night former UTV political editor Ken Reid, who had correctly predicted that Mr Poots would win even before Sir Jeffrey declared his candidature, said that the result was “a terrible blow for the establishment” of the DUP.

There has been widespread briefing from some of those backing Mr Poots that he will remove the party’s most powerful backroom figure for almost two decades, chief executive Timothy Johnson, along with his brother in law John Robinson – the party’s chief spin doctor – and Emma Little Pengelly, Mrs Foster’s chief spad.

However, another source close to Mr Poots questioned that last week, telling this newspaper that those people did not have “targets” on them.

In the absence of the candidates being publicly interviewed on the record about their plans, there is considerable uncertainty about exactly what Mr Poots will actually do now that he has won.

Last night Sinn Féin Finance Minister Conor Murphy suggested that the outcome of the contest could be the basis for a fresh start at Stormont.

He told Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra programme that he hoped the “instability” in the DUP would now “settle down” with Mr Poots’s election.

Mr Poots’s win is in part a triumph for the DUP’s Paisleyites, some of whom still feel bitter at the role some senior DUP figures played in the late Ian Paisley’s removal from office in 2008.

Mr Poots has long been in the Paisleyite camp and one of his key allies in the leadership contest was Ian Paisley Jr.

Last night Baroness Paisley welcomed Mr Poots’s elevation to the leadership, but was restrained in her comments, telling the News Letter that he had been “a faithful member of the party, as his father was before him - he was also a lovely man and a very strong DUP man”.

She added: “All I can do is wish Edwin every blessing; he has a big job ahead of him....we need to pray for him that we will have wisdom.”

Morning View, page 10

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