Under enormous internal DUP pressure due to the fissure which has opened after the sudden toppling of Arlene Foster, the new DUP leader has indignantly insisted that there was never any boycott of the north-south meetings.
As the Paisleyite leader shows his renowned pragmatism, yesterday he also made clear that he is prepared to accept an Irish language act – as long as it is called something else.
Three weeks ago – and just a day after he had defeated Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in the contest to succeed Mrs Foster – Mr Poots was asked by the Sunday Life if he had any intention of returning to north-south ministerial meetings.
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The DUP leader replied: “No I don’t”.
He went on to say that he wanted to meet the Irish government “before we return to anything” but gave no indication that simply a meeting with the Taoiseach would see the DUP’s refusal to attend multiple north-south meetings fall away.
On Thursday, Mr Poots and his close ally Paul Givan – who is rumoured to be the MLA who Mr Poots will next week appoint as first minister - travelled to Dublin to meet Taoiseach Micheál Martin.
Despite Mr Poots having claimed that north-south relations were worse than they had ever been, photos showed the three men laughing and relaxed.
Yesterday on Good Morning Ulster the DUP leader insisted there had never been a DUP boycott of north-south meetings.
He said: “I just wish to correct you. There never was a boycott of north-south bodies. That was never part of the five-point plan. We have to make that very clear.”
The ‘five-point plan’ set out by Mrs Foster said: “We also intend to send a strong signal to the government of the Republic of Ireland that North-South relationships are also impacted by the implementation of a protocol which they supported. Our members cannot and will not continue to act as though relationships are normal.”
Mr Poots was asked whether there had been some other “strong signal” on north-south relations which had been missed.
He replied: “That is absolutely correct in what you have laid out, and that is what is going to happen – so there will be that difference in north-south relations and we will ensure that that is done.
“But there was never a boycott. Some meetings weren’t attended, but there was never an official policy of boycotting north-south meetings.”
TUV leader Jim Allister denounced Mr Poots for softening his stance, saying that the NI protocol cannot be fixed and involves profound constitutional ramifications.
He said: “We have been left in a foreign single market for goods, subject to a foreign customs code and foreign VAT regime, all over seen by a foreign court.
“No fix can change the essence of protocol. It is a transfer of sovereignty and a constitutional abomination.
“From my discussions with Mrs Foster it was clear that she grasped this. I am not sure Mr Poots does.”
Writing in his News Letter column yesterday, former DUP leader Peter Robinson contrasted how Ian Paisley was removed from office “sensitively” to the “needlessly nasty” nature of Mrs Foster’s toppling.
Amid unparalleled acrimony within the DUP, Mr Robinson warned that “recent events have left people across Northern Ireland asking hard questions about whether the DUP is still capable of leading unionism”.
When Mr Robinson’s criticisms were put to Mr Poots, he hit back, saying: “The problem Peter has is that he is out of the loop and therefore doesn’t know exactly what is going on or what has happened.
“The only thing different from when Peter became leader and when I became leader is that actually the people who made things public were people who were not in the Poots camp and that is how that became public, and that is the only difference between the two.
“So what was good for Peter doesn’t’ seem to be good for anybody else.”
Yesterday Mrs Foster said that those behind her removal form office have still not spoken to her about it.
She said: “There was of course another way
“Sometimes when I hear people talk about it they say ‘there was no other way’ and of course there was another way and the way to do that was to come and have a conversation with me.
“As yet I still haven’t had a conversation with those people who decided that my time as leader was up.”
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