Edwin Poots: I won’t bring forward Arlene Foster’s exit as first minister
Incoming DUP leader Edwin Poots has insisted he will not seek to hasten Arlene Foster’s exit as first minister.
Mr Poots’ comments appear to represent a softening of his stance after he previously indicated party members would decide when Mrs Foster left her role at head of the powersharing executive.
His insistence on Friday that Mrs Foster would be under no pressure from him to bring forward her end of June departure date came after former DUP leader Peter Robinson heavily criticised suggestions she would be forced to leave sooner.
Mrs Foster is standing down as DUP leader next week after an internal coup forced her to quit.
Announcing her resignation last month she said she would leave her role as Stormont First Minister at the end of June.
There had been speculation that Mr Poots would seek to bring forward her departure from the First Minister’s office to allow him to appoint her successor sooner.
Mr Poots has already made clear he will not take on the role of First Minister but will instead appoint a party colleague.
Speaking to reporters on a visit to Drumquin in Co Tyrone on Friday, Mr Poots said Mrs Foster would be the one to decide when she left the Stormont Executive.
“Arlene will be leaving office when Arlene chooses to leave office,” he said.
“She’s under absolutely no pressure from me to do otherwise.”
Mr Poots said he was continuing to engage with party colleagues on his strategy when he assumes the leadership on key issues such as the unionist campaign to scrap the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol governing Irish Sea trade post-Brexit.
“I’ve engaged with dozens of colleagues over the course of this last week from all across the party and that will continue over the course of the next number of days as we engage with people, speak to people, and plot our way forward to secure the Union and to deal with the Protocol issue and to ensure that Northern Ireland moves forward,” he said.
Earlier, Mr Robinson, who was Mrs Foster’s predecessor as DUP leader and First Minister, accused Mr Poots of employing an “unnecessarily harsh modus operandi” to move her from office.
Mr Robinson contrasted that with Mr Poots’ calls for party unity since his election last Friday.
In Friday morning’s Belfast News Letter, he wrote of Mr Poots: “His detractors point out that he has not always been in the vanguard of those providing support and loyalty to leaders in the past.”
He added: “Those who are suspicious of him say they will be hard to convince that he will deal with those who opposed him “sensitively and delicately”, as it clashes not only with the publicly embarrassing manner of his removal of his predecessor but with his supporters’ current demand that she be disposed of before the date she announced.
“Having left her humiliated, they now want to leave her as roadkill.”
Mr Robinson said the removal of Mrs Foster and subsequent leadership contest between Mr Poots and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had been damaging for the party.
“No matter how you cut it, the last few weeks have been harmful to the DUP,” he said.
“A bloodbath of one leader’s dismissal and a neck-and-neck election outcome for a new leader displaying an equal division of how members see the way ahead. As one of that ever-diminishing group of founding members of the party who met in the Ulster Hall half a century ago to launch the DUP, I hope that the party can rally and bind up its wounds.”
He concluded: “Has Edwin the capacity to heal old wounds? Certainly, he has. Will he? We will find out very soon.
“Much may be in doubt but there are two safe bets – divided parties do not win elections and he will not unite unionism if he cannot unite his own party.”