Sam McBride: Bewildering contrast between how Edwin Poots seized power and how he used that power

Looking back at the wreckage of Edwin Poots’s 20-day leadership of the DUP, there is a bewildering contrast between how he seized power and how he used that power.

Saturday, 19th June 2021, 7:01 am
Edwin Poots just after nominating Paul Givan as First Minister on Thursday

Despite Arlene Foster’s understandable unhappiness at how she was unseated, that action by Mr Poots and his allies decisively demonstrated their ability to achieve their aims.

They acted with overwhelming force in a way that Mrs Foster and others attempted – but failed – to do in attempting to dislodge David Trimble two decades ago.

To his supporters, that showed the Lagan Valley MLA to be a man who got things done. But Mr Poots stopped getting things done as soon as his leadership was confirmed.

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In interview after interview the new leader was bland, with little new to say. What he did say emphasised that he would be continuing with most of Mrs Foster’s policies – bolstering the narrative that his move against her had been founded on lust for power rather than principle.

The clearest example of the ineptitude of the new leadership came a week ago when Ian Paisley Jr joined Van Morrison in a tirade against UUP health minister Robin Swann.

Even within the DUP, that went down badly. Among the wider public it was seen as crassly arrogant.

Yet for a more inventive leader it would have been an opportunity. Mr Poots’s long friendship with Mr Paisley meant that he could have immediately told the North Antrim MP privately that he would have to accept a public reprimand for the greater good.

That would have shown decisiveness, given him the moral authority to then discipline others who stepped out of line, and would have reassured some of those on Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s side of the DUP alarmed at what they viewed as Mr Paisley’s untouchable power.

Instead, last Friday Mr Poots told the BBC that he had not seen the 99-second video clip and the issue festered over the weekend.

That in itself demonstrated another failure – the new leader’s lack of a new team around him. Having won the leadership pledging to fundamentally reform the party, he showed no urgency around even the basics of that reform.

If the DUP leader had not seen the video of Mr Paisley before facing the media, why had someone not shown it to him? And why had he not lined up someone to be appointed immediately to provide that basic professionalism necessary at the top of politics?

Mr Poots’s detractors may dismiss all this as simply evidence of his lack of ability. Yet his ministerial career is not marked with such shockingly obvious unforced errors, and he appears to have been planning Mrs Foster’s removal for some time, making this farcical period all the more puzzling.

But in broader terms the manner of Mr Poots’s downfall reinforces that unionist leaders move in a moderate direction at their peril.

Far from being a return to full-throated Paisleyism, Mr Poots brief tenure was marked by pragmatism. That culminated in his willingness to prioritise Stormont’s stability over the views of the overwhelming majority of his colleagues. That moment of political madness is hard to explain based on what we now know.

But it means that his successor – almost certainly Sir Jeffrey Donaldson – faces an immediate conundrum: Will he accept the government going over Stormont’s head to legislate for the Irish language?

If he will, then why did he and so many of his colleagues move against Mr Poots when he did likewise?

Sir Jeffrey is a far more polished politician who has been tested at a higher level than Mr Poots. But despite this it was Sir Jeffrey’s team which last month briefed that he was prepared to topple Stormont by cutting off “all north-south cooperation” in a way which he knew would see Sinn Féin collapse devolution.

Just as the manner of Mr Poots’s toppling of Mrs Foster dogged his brief leadership, so the very different circumstances of Mr Poots’s downfall are an immediate problem for his successor.

READ MORE:

Sam McBride: Edwin Poots has won three times in a month – but he’s losing a bigger battle

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