Sam McBride: A floundering start from DUP leader ‘Edwin Foster’, who does not have time on his side
Many of Edwin Poot’s critics both inside and outside the DUP were dismayed at the expectation that he would lead the DUP back to the Paisleyism of decades long past.
But already a new criticism of the DUP leader is emerging – that he is simply a difference face for Arlene Foster’s policies.
Mr Poots may well say that such contradictory critiques show that no matter what he does, he will be attacked, but that comes with the leadership position which he wanted.
Yesterday the TUV leader Jim Allister briefly stumbled over his words on Radio Ulster and referred to “Edwin Foster” before correcting himself. In fact, that sobriquet may stick because it sums up how little seems to be changing under Mr Poots. And that is a dangerous perception for the new leader because it feeds a narrative that he had no great disagreement with Mrs Foster but simply wanted power.
When pressed by Chris Buckler on Good Morning Ulster to set out how his leadership polices were different to his predecessor’s, Mr Poots struggled to articulate any substantive changes.
He said that he wanted to remove the protocol – precisely what Mrs Foster had been saying, but with no more creative means of achieving that goal.
When asked if he was happy to press ahead with an Irish language act as agreed, Mr Poots implausibly claimed that “there’s no such proposal on the table”.
Instead, he said that legislation involved “cultural amendments to the Belfast 1998 Agreement” and confirmed that he would “expedite” what once was called the Irish language act but now will be called the “Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Amendment No 2) Bill”.
When asked if he was ruling out an Irish language act, he said: “No. Words should not be put in my mouth.”
When asked if the blood that had been spilt to oust Arlene Foster had been worth it, Mr Poots evaded the question, simply saying: “It is critically important that we get results.”
Similarly he insisted his decision to again attend North-South Ministerial Council meetings was not a U-turn because although DUP ministers had not been going to those meetings and had said that north-south business could not continue as usual, there was no “official” boycott.
That stance looks particularly weak because the DUP leader’s announcement that he would attend North-South meetings came less than 24 hours after Sinn Féin said it was taking legal advice on whether this was unlawful.
Coming from a new leader, yesterday’s recourse to sophistry and spin sounded particularly stale. If that is how Mr Poots is going to lead, he is likely to lose the honeymoon with voters which most new leaders enjoy and which for his predecessor lasted almost a year.
Rather than presenting himself as fresh, full of new ideas and a break with the past, Mr Poots seems to be attempting to shackle himself as closely to Mrs Foster’s policies and style as possible.
That may be because of his insecurity within the DUP where a large rump does not support his leadership.
Or it may be linked to fear that if he talks tough now then Sinn Féin may refuse to renominate Michelle O’Neill to be first minister and he will face an early election at the worst possible time.
Ironically it has been the DUP itself – rather than Sinn Féin – which has talked up that potential crisis.
Mr Poots will only have so many chances to imprint on the short attention spans of many voters that he is the person who removed Mrs Foster because he disagreed with her – and therefore he was responding to unionist dismay at her leadership.
Thus far voters have seen a major U-turn, uninspiring public performances, an absence of new policies, vicious infighting, and a leader whose own colleagues are denouncing him in lurid terms.
With a seminal election less than a year away, Mr Poots needs to make every week count – and three weeks after he defeated Sir Jeffrey for the DUP’s top job, he’s still going backwards.
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