The DUP’s big beasts publicly disembowelled me, says Edwin Poots
Outgoing DUP leader Edwin Poots has exposed the continued bitter divide inside the party with a departing salvo in which he accused the party’s top brass of having disembowelled him.
In a remarkable extended interview with Stephen Nolan, Mr Poots suggested that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had never accepted his leadership defeat at Mr Poots’s hands and said that the majority of party officers who backed Sir Jeffrey had given him no choice but to resign last Thursday.
He said that his removal and replacement with Sir Jeffrey was “more personality-based than policy-based” because “there isn’t a sliver of paper between us on policy”.
Today there was no response from Sir Jeffrey or the DUP party officers.
Mr Poots insisted that “whenever people look at this even in months to come, never mind years to come, they will probably recognise that I was a leader who wasn’t given an opportunity to do the job, as opposed to a failed leader.”
The Lagan Valley MLA was asked why he pressed ahead with what seemed to be politically insane – publicly nominating his protégé Paul Givan to be first minister when he knew that the overwhelming majority of his party colleagues opposed that.
Stormont’s agriculture minister replied: “Well, leadership’s about taking risks; I took a risk to run for the leadership and maybe I took a risk in deciding to take on some of the big beasts in doing that and then obviously some of the big beasts decided to have another go in that circumstance.”
When asked if Sir Jeffrey had spotted an opportunity to secure the leadership, he said that he was referring to beasts “plural”, adding: “I’ll leave people to draw their own conclusions. They know who supported me and they know who was against me in the actual election process...they have chosen to move against me, and I have decided to move back.”
He added: “Most of the party officers were backing Jeffrey in the first instance so it was never going to be an easy room to convince.”
The DUP veteran said it was “pretty obvious the way the meeting was going”, with him given an ultimatum to decide his future immediately in the room.
Rather than wait for a vote of no confidence, he resigned.
He reflected: “Maybe if I’d got through that day it mightn’t have happened, but such is life.”
Although insisting that he was relaxed about what had happened, Mr Poots said bluntly: “Essentially I was publicly eviscerated on the Thursday”.
He said he had spoken to Sir Jeffrey last Thursday before the party officers’ meeting and the “lack of engagement” from Sir Jeffrey over the previous weeks.
However, he said that the conversation was “of limited benefit”. He said that he had not been speaking to Sir Jeffrey in the period prior to that day but that “it wasn’t for lack of trying on my part”.
Mr Poots said that he did not sleep much that night, but that he believes that God controls his destiny.
Unrepentant about what he had done, Mr Poots suggested that his actions in keeping devolution in place – despite the government’s threat to legislate for the Irish language using direct rule powers at Westminster – would somehow lead to the Irish Sea border being removed.
He said: “If I have lost my leadership, but have taken steps which ensure that we get a result on the protocol...then that’s been worth doing and that’s worth the sacrifice that I’ve made.”
When asked if he has confidence in the DUP party officers who control the party, Mr Poots declined to endorse them and would only say: “I’m not going to get into that”.
However, unlike Mrs Foster who immediately decided to quit the DUP entirely when she was toppled, Mr Poots said: “Oh no, I haven’t been in this party for 40 years to take the hump about something that maybe hasn’t worked out for me.
“I’m a faithful, loyal member of the DUP and that’s how it has been for the past 40 years and how it will be going forward.”
When it was put to him that he had been involved in the overthrow Arlene Foster, Mr Poots said: “Well it is what happened to Arlene Foster.
“I was one of the 22 out of 27 MLAs who could have signed that...I was one of those who signed it. I regret, and always did regret, that it couldn’t have been done in another way because I knew that it was harsh and cruel but nonetheless there was a coming together of opinions on that issue and it led to that circumstance.”
He said he can “understand her hurt, and understand her pain”, but said that he still thought it was necessary to remove her.
Mr Poots also said that he feared renewed loyalist violence. He said that earlier in the year “young loyalists who were not connected to paramilitary organisations” had been involved in violence, but added: “I fear that if things don’t change over the course of the summertime that perhaps some older people who are involved in paramilitaries will get involved”.
‘If Stormont falls, that will hurt unionism the most’
Edwin Poots has said that he believes that Sinn Féin would emerge as the largest party in a snap Stormont election, and has argued that even if that did not happen unionism would lose influence if devolution fell.
He told Stephen Nolan: “I was a young man in 1985 whenever the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed...I was at all of those street protests; I was at Maryfield; I was at Belfast City Hall both times...We were on the outside shouting in and nobody was listening.”
He added: “I am of the opinion that when it comes to the NI Protocol I have been relating the issues over and over and over again to [cabinet ministers]...We’ve been driving the messages home over and over again and I believe those messages are being heard.
“The UK government recognises the damage that the protocol is doing and we are making an absolute difference.”
He said that to have allowed the Assembly to crash again “would have taken away the opportunity for us to continue that battle to remove the most significant constitutional damage that has been done to Northern Ireland since its creation in 1921.”
When asked about collapsing Stormont in response to Westminster passing Irish legislation over Stormont’s head, he said: “The crashing of the institutions is something which I think would have had a negative impact on unionism...”
However, he said that he had made clear to the party officers that if the changes to the protocol which he expected do not come by the end of July then “I would be looking at pulling the first minister out”.
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