Sam McBride: Don’t assume Edwin Poots is more hardline than Sir Jeffrey Donaldson – the truth is more nuanced
Beyond Ian Paisley Jr, there could hardly be a senior DUP figure more immersed in the party than Edwin Poots.
His father, Charlie Poots, was one of the late Ian Paisley’s followers even before he founded the DUP in 1971 – he had been a member of the Protestant Unionist Party which preceded it and went on to become an uncompromising Assemblyman.
He was also a member of Dr Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church. His son followed him politically, religiously and in fealty to the Paisleys.
Over a long career which began as a Lisburn councillor in 1997, he has espoused creationism, has refused as health minister to allow gay men to donate blood, and as recently as last year suggested coronavirus was more prevalent in nationalist areas.
Those views have been lampooned and even some of his supporters privately concede that the way in which he is perceived will be a problem.
But that is only part of the picture. The other Edwin Poots is deeply pragmatic, wants to make Stormont work, and is willing to compromise with Sinn Féin in order to do so.
The inaccuracy of presenting Mr Poots as the hardliner and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson as the moderate is demonstrated in one example.
In 2018 it was Mr Poots who was key to negotiating and publicly defending an Irish language act in all but name as the price of Stormont’s restoration.
It was Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and others in the party who rejected that. Ultimately, the DUP as a whole signed up to something remarkably similar two years later.
In January 2018, in the wake of Barry McElduff’s antics with a loaf of Kingsmill bread, Mr Poots appeared with Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd on The View.
I was across the studio, expecting a furious clash. Instead, both men demonstrated leadership in de-escalating the row.
At that point, Mr Poots was looking for another job, dismayed at Stormont’s absence.
More recently he has allowed his officials to build and oversee the Irish Sea border – not the actions of a Jim Allister-type figure, but a stance which will be problematic for him in convincing unionists that he is on top of a key strategic issue facing unionism.
Mr Poots is not someone with either the intellect of David Trimble or the gravitas of Ian Paisley.
But he is not the dullard some people suggest. The last fortnight has shown his skill – and his ability to spot and harness the skills of those around him.
To be able to sweep Arlene Foster out of power with the support of 85% of her MLAs was a sensational display of raw political power.
To then launch his campaign within a day, assemble a team of assistants, design graphics, arrange for professional videos and photos, and secure a series of public endorsements from colleagues demonstrated the sort of basic competence which once marked the DUP, but has long been absent from much of its activities.
But there have also been errors. His campaign manager, Paul Frew, claimed victory last Saturday prior to Sir Jeffrey’s candidature was announced. Some MLAs are said to have seen that as an attempt to pressure them into backing Mr Poots, despite the widespread desire in the party for a contest.
And someone close to Mr Poots briefed that he would appoint his protegé Paul Givan as first minister, something which is similarly said to have backfired. This week a source close to Mr Poots said he did not now think Mr Givan would be first minister if he wins.
Someone who is not involved in politics and is not a DUP supporter but who has met Mr Poots professionally in several settings marvelled at the contrast between how he is perceived and how he operates as a minister.
They recalled a sports awards event in Armagh not long after devolution was restored in 2007 and at which Mr Poots as culture minister was guest of honour: “He was very comfortable in what was a mixed audience. When he got up to speak he made an Armagh-Tyrone joke”, alluding to the inter-county GAA rivalry.
The individual said: “He left Armagh that night with a degree of respect and goodwill from people who would be far removed from the DUP politically without in any way compromising his own political identity”, in contrast to another DUP culture minister, Nelson McCausland, who seemed “awkward”.
Mr Poots has also been increasingly vocal about the urgent challenge of climate change. Despite being a farmer and there having been an historic scepticism from many farmers about environmental measures, Mr Poots has over the last year repeatedly spoken of the need to protect the planet – shrewd politics, given that is a growing concern of many voters.
One MLA backing Mr Poots said they were under no illusions about his imperfections: “He drops balls and can throw hand grenades like the rest of us. But there’s a real human side to him, mostly in private”.
Most MLAs had a story about Mr Poots coming to support them at a difficult time, he said, adding: “Is there a perfect person out there? Of course not. But it’s about getting the right team in place.”
Few unionist leaders are elected as moderates, but leadership generally has a moderating influence – most dramatically seen in David Trimble.
Whether that is where Mr Poots wants to go is difficult to know, given the DUP’s gagging of him and Sir Jeffrey. But if that is his plan, there are plenty of hints beneath his unpolished exterior.
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