Sam McBride: Rather than a DUP lurch to the right, this is about toppling the old order

The bookies didn’t think it would happen, neither did some senior DUP figures, and immediately some observers are misunderstanding what has just happened within the DUP.

Saturday, 15th May 2021, 10:09 am
Edwin Poots and Paula Bradley at Stormont last night

This is political slaughter, but it is not primarily about ideology. That has appeared to be clear since Arlene Foster’s downfall two weeks ago, but became unavoidably clear yesterday.

Edwin Poots carries the DUP in his DNA. Unquestionably, he is more right wing, more instinctively hardline and more socially conservative than Mrs Foster.

But this is about far more than simply the revenge of the Paisleyites – although that is part of this complex plot.

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The central clue to understanding what happened yesterday is the election of Paula Bradley. It would be impossible to find a DUP MLA more antithetical to a Free Presbyterian takeover of the DUP.

The North Belfast MLA supports gay rights, supports abortion being legalised, and publicly criticised Gregory Campbell’s ‘curry my yoghurt’ Irish language jibe.

The significance of her election as DUP deputy leader – to replace a Free Presbyterian former assistant to Dr Paisley, Nigel Dodds – is not that it happened, but how it happened.

Yesterday Mr Poots worked to help clear the way for Mrs Bradley’s victory over Mr Campbell, the ultimate old school DUP man.

Mr Poots’ campaign manager, Paul Frew, was also a candidate for deputy leader. Yesterday morning he was part way through his speech to the electoral college when the North Antrim MLA announced that he was withdrawing from the race.

Several days ago, one source in Mr Poots’s camp had predicted Mr Frew – whose central concern is reform of the DUP – would not let his name go forward for deputy leader and that Ms Bradley would be the victor in that contest.

Nevertheless, his sudden withdrawal left veteran Jim Wells “dumbfounded”. Last night he said “it is obvious that there were some discussions between him and Paula Bradley’s camp.

“It basically boiled down to whether if Paula Bradley became deputy leader, some of here folk were prepared to vote for Edwin Poots.

“I have no doubt that Paula Bradley voted for Edwin Poots.”

However, Mr Wells said that he had not voted for Ms Bradley. Yet he did not vote for Mr Campell either and instead abstained. He said that a DUP MP had also abstained.

Why would DUP MLAs and MPs prefer the somewhat odd pairing of Mr Poots and Mrs Bradley, rather than the more obvious right-wing ticket of Mr Poots and Mr Campbell? And why would traditionalist supporters of Mr Poots abstain in the deputy leadership vote rather than back a social conservative, Mr Campbell?

The answer explains what all of this has been about. This was about overthrowing what had become the DUP’s royal family, an elite who survived in powerful positions under different leaders, just as the Queen remains when the prime minister changes.

Mr Campbell and Sir Jeffrey were seen as people less likely to shake things up.

The one significant word spoken by Mr Poots on his way into party headquarters yesterday was “reform”. That was the key element of his manifesto. That was what his supporters believed he represents: A new broom who will transform how the DUP operates, and refresh its small centralised team of power-brokers.

That explains why Ms Bradley signed the letter of no confidence in Mrs Foster even though, like Mrs Foster, she abstained in the Assembly vote on banning gay conversion therapy.

Expect Mr Poots to talk tough; but the key thing to watch is whether he acts tough.

It will be hard for the minister who allowed his officials to build the Irish Sea border and who to this day allows them to operate it to suddenly adopt a radically different approach.

It will be equally hard for the pragmatist who two years ago was willing to accept an Irish language act when even Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was opposing it to now suddenly recant on that commitment.

Those issues remain unresolved in this contest, largely because both candidates were kept away from public scrutiny.

Now they will have to be addressed. Reforming the DUP might be the easy part.

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