The Herald on Sunday
Summer of discontent Looms amid DUP civil war
AS a masterpiece of miscalculation, it took some beating.
Edwin Poots decided, after just 21 days as leader of the Democratic Unionists, to embark on a course of action he knew his Westminster and Stormont colleagues were bitterly opposed to and would simply not accept.
Yet as voices were raised at an acrimonious DUP meeting, Mr Poots stood up and with his close ally, Paul Givan, left before a vote was taken on the way forward. Minutes later, the two men were in the Assembly chamber, where the former nominated the latter as First Minister.
The private DUP vote was, apparently, 24 to four against Mr Poots nominating Mr Givan. One senior DUP figure said the meeting’s atmosphere was “utterly dreadful”, adding: “Never experienced the like of it.”
It was only last month, having choreographed the brutal departure of Arlene Foster as DUP leader, Mr Poots, the Creationist Agriculture Minister, took over the role.
While he had a grand strategy for getting the top job, there was something missing – a plan to actually do it.
The so-called hardliner offered up nothing new from Mrs Foster’s approach on the “betrayal” of the Northern Ireland Protocol and how to remove the trade border down the Irish Sea. Eyebrows were raised when he insisted he intended to implement in full the 2020 New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement to restore powersharing and which included introducing Irish Language legislation – the prize for Sinn Fein.
The new DUP leader, heading a fractured party, boasted how he would unite not only it but also the Unionist family. Yet, at the first test he failed and, thereafter, failed again. Having presided over the humiliating ousting of Mrs
Foster, his magnanimity in victory did not extend to his rival for the DUP crown, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who failed to get a mention in Mr Poots’ acceptance speech. Unionism is riven.
On Friday, in County Down, hundreds of people protested, calling on the DUP not to nominate a new FM until the Protocol is scrapped.
Jim Allister, leader of the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party (TUV), called on whoever takes over the helm at the DUP to “find a backbone” and tell Boris Johnson there will be no FM until there is no Protocol.
During protest parades in Newtonards, Union flags were waved and the spirit of Edward Carson was invoked. Banners carried the ominous message: “Dublin’s Choice: Peace or Protocol?”
The Loyalist Communities Council, representing views of the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando, appealed for “continued restraint and peaceful protest” but warned Irish Government
ministers and officials were “no longer welcome in Northern Ireland”.
It, too, called on the next DUP leader to collapse power-sharing, if necessary, to “stop the constant flow of concessions to Sinn Fein”.
Yet collapsing Stormont would spark fresh elections – the last thing the DUP needs given the polls.
A recent snapshot put Sinn Fein on 25 per cent, nine points ahead of the DUP, which was on 16%, its lowest-ever showing. The Ulster Unionist Party rose to 14% while the TUV rose one point to 11%.
Last week, power-sharing was threatened over Sinn Fein’s fears the commitment to implement Irish language legislation would not be honoured by the DUP.
Mr Poots said he wanted to see the NDNA implemented in full but gave no guarantee this would happen this side of the May 2022 elections.
With the threat of another collapse to the Stormont Assembly, Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, intervened, saying if MLAs did not pass the necessary legislation in September, MPs would do so in October.
While this democratic override is possible within the devolved settlement, the DUP said it was against its spirit.
The irony was not lost on anyone. That Sinn Fein, which absents itself from Westminster, called on the UK Government to use Westminster to get what it wanted. Unionists dubbed it “ransom politics”.
FIRST SINN FEIN FM?
Whenever the next elections come, they could well result in a Republican victory and the province’s first Sinn Fein FM. This would undoubtedly resurrect the issue of a border poll and the prospect of a unified island.
The timing, earlier this week, of Tanaiste Leo Varadkar’s comments about a united Ireland only deepened Unionist angst.
As the DUP dived into the depths of turmoil following Mr Poots’ masterpiece of miscalculation, perhaps it came as no surprise Mrs Foster succumbed to temptation.
She took to Twitter to regale everyone how she was having a perfectly lovely lunch at a top Belfast restaurant, adding: “I hope everyone is having a nice day.”
Later, as the DUP top brass met in Belfast for the Poots ousting, TV cameras caught the entry of his defeated rival, Sir Jeffrey, who told reporters with a wry smile: “What a lovely day.”
Barring an unexpected return by Mrs Foster from her happy exile, Sir Jeffrey looks set to be crowned the DUP’s third leader in as many weeks.
Given the state of the party in the polls, he will have to be magnanimous, where Mr Poots wasn’t, and will have to unite his party, where Mr Poots didn’t.
Re-establishing stability will be the new DUP leader’s primary task but it emerged yesterday Mr Givan has been told by party officers he will have to resign when the new leader takes over.
This will resurrect tensions because his departure will spark that of Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill as DFM. The DUP and Sinn Féin will again have just seven days to fill the roles to keep power-sharing alive.
If a new FM is agreed, the new DUP leader will face the tricky task of removing Poots’ supporters from
their ministerial roles and replacing them with their preferred people.
What is now required from the DUP is intelligent leadership, statesmanship even, to avoid a summer of discontent played out in ugly scenes on the streets of Northern Ireland. The marching season, after all, is almost upon us. We can only hope and pray Sir Jeffrey and his colleagues have the
ability to deliver it.
The new DUP leader will face the tricky task of removing Poots’ supporters from their ministerial roles