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DUP picks hard-liner as leader to battle Northern Ireland protocol

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The Democratic Unionist Party on Friday elected a new hardline leader, Edwin Poots, who vows to overturn the Brexit trade deal’s Irish protocol — even if this means shaking the foundations of the Northern Ireland peace settlement.

Poots barely defeated the party’s House of Commons leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, in a 19-17 vote Friday among party lawmakers. The narrow outcome reflected longstanding divisions between the party’s centrist and Christian evangelical wings.

His victory will be welcomed by rival political forces that hope to topple the Democratic Unionists as the top party in the next Northern Ireland Assembly elections. 

Donaldson had been viewed as the dull but smooth candidate more likely to position the DUP as a broader church capable of retaining relatively liberal unionists within its ranks.

Poots, by contrast, is noted for moments of blunt-spoken bigotry such as blocking blood donations by gay people and claiming that Catholics were much more likely to catch COVID-19. Like most DUP lawmakers, he opposes same-sex marriages and abortion, both policies imposed on Northern Ireland by U.K. legislation.

His win leaves unclear who will succeed Arlene Foster as first minister, the leader of Northern Ireland’s five-party government. Poots led the internal push to oust Foster — but doesn’t want to hold the first minister post.

Shift to the right

The leading candidate to become government leader instead is Poots ally Paul Givan, who was seen entering the DUP’s headquarters in Protestant east Belfast shortly after Poots’ victory speech Friday night.

Both politicians are members of an openly anti-Catholic sect, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, founded by the DUP’s late founding father Ian Paisley. Both are strict biblical creationists who believe the Earth is only 6,000 years old, fossils are fake and evolution is a fraud.

Poots, who didn’t take questions from the victor’s podium, said he was determined to minimize European Union-required checks on goods arriving at Northern Ireland ports from Britain. That U.K.-splitting outcome of the Brexit trade deal has enraged many unionists.

He vowed to build common cause with other unionist groups to deliver “an end” to the protocol.

“I want to see unionism working together,” he said. “The Northern Ireland protocol has proven to be a massive challenge for us. If we are to fight this, to ensure that everybody in Northern Ireland is not worse off as a consequence of the protocol, then it’s for us to do that together.”

Hostility to the protocol proved politically fatal for Foster, who was forced to resign last month as DUP leader amid rank-and-file unhappiness over her initial lukewarm acceptance of the protocol. She noted that the arrangement would be good for Northern Ireland manufacturers, who uniquely could export barrier-free both to Britain and the 27-nation EU. 

But such arguments faded with the sudden January imposition of EU controls on goods arriving from Britain. This unsettled Northern Ireland society as confused suppliers canceled normal shipments and stocks on store shelves temporarily thinned. 

The episode underscored how dependent the region’s lackluster economy is on British supply chains now subject to bureaucratic delays, restrictions and higher costs. Anti-protocol tensions fueled 10 days of April rioting by working-class Protestants, many of whom derided the DUP for permitting a new regime that makes it easier to trade with the Republic of Ireland than with Britain.

Poots last month mocked Foster’s initial pro-protocol comments as “like bragging about your side’s wonder goal when you’ve just been hammered 6-1.”

Yet as Northern Ireland’s agriculture minister, Poots was most responsible locally for rolling out the new checks on British goods at the ports — a point seized upon by Donaldson’s supporters.

Need for cooperation

Nominating another hard-liner for the first minister’s post would pose an immediate test for the resiliency of power-sharing, the central goal of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace accord of 1998.

While DUP lawmakers pick their own leader, all parties must approve appointments to the Northern Ireland administration, most importantly the DUP’s polar opposites from the Irish nationalist Sinn Feín party. 

A refusal to accept Poots’ nominee as the new government leader could quickly trigger the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly, as last happened in January 2017 when DUP-Sinn Féin relations reached toxic levels. Power-sharing was restored only 16 months ago.

Politicians from other parties told POLITICO it would be a mistake to write off Poots as an irredeemably divisive force. They noted that Poots himself, while a sometimes clumsy speaker given to sectarian and misogynistic soundbites, has personal charm and good behind-the-scenes relations with Sinn Féin figures.

They note that Poots’ fundamentalist politics are tied closely to the late Ian Paisley, who spent decades calling for Sinn Féin and its Irish Republican Army allies to be “smashed” — only to stun the world by forming an effective government with them in 2007.

“If Ian Paisley can surprise us,” one Assembly member said, “perhaps Poots can too.”

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said she hoped Poots would take steps to strengthen Northern Ireland’s fragile government, not provoke her party. An immediate fight looms on whether the DUP will stop blocking an Irish Language Act, a longtime Sinn Féin demand.

“Sinn Féin wants power sharing to work,” she said. “We are strongly committed to making our political institutions work so that we can create a better, fairer and more equal society for all.”

DUP lawmakers noted that, moments after Poots’ victory, the party elected its most liberal Assembly member to be his deputy leader: north Belfast representative Paula Bradshaw.

“The result isn’t necessarily the party moving to the right,” said one DUP Assembly member, who told POLITICO he voted for Poots even though he thinks Donaldson is more competent and professional. “The clearest message from this vote is that we want change.” 

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