by Frank Schnittger
Fri May 14th, 2021 at 06:33:41 PM EST
Edwin Poots has defeated Jeffrey Donaldson 19-17 in the first ever vote for the leadership of the DUP. Previous Leaders - founder Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster had been elected unopposed. The electorate consisted of elected DUP MPs and MLAs (Members of the N. Ireland Legislative Assembly) following a campaign which consisted of no public interviews whatsoever and just a 10 minute speech to a closed meeting of the electors. Apparently this was because the DUP considered the election an "internal matter", but it confirmed just how inward looking the DUP has become.
After his election, Poots promised to reach out to other leaders of Unionism in order to see unionists working together better. There was no mention of reaching out to nationalists or the growing numbers in N. Ireland who self-identify as neither unionist nor nationalist. His political priority is to end the N. Ireland protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement because it has created a customs border down the Irish sea, although he is all in favour of such a border when it comes to not implementing UK laws on homosexuality and same sex marriages.
Poots is a young earth creationist and rejects the theory of evolution. In an interview with BBC presenter William Crawley, when asked how old the Earth was, Poots replied: "My view on the earth is that it's a young earth. My view is 4,000 BC". Young earth creationism is accepted by the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, of which Poots is a member, and other conservative evangelicals in Northern Ireland. In a 2012 Belfast Telegraph article, which discussed lobbying by the creationist bible group the Caleb Foundation, Poots reportedly stated that, while not a member of the group, "Some of my views coincide with the Caleb Foundation".
Poots faced criticism for banning blood donations from gay people, saying: "I think that people who engage in high-risk sexual behaviour in general should be excluded from giving blood". In June 2012, Poots said he wanted to extend the ban to people who have sex "with somebody in Africa or sex with prostitutes", stating that, in his view, this was also high-risk sexual behaviour.
In September 2013, as Health Minister for Northern Ireland, he fought the ruling that would bring laws around LGBT adoption in Northern Ireland into line with other parts of the United Kingdom.
In January 2016, Poots was criticised by gender equality advocates, political commentators and other politicians for saying that the newly elected First Minister, Arlene Foster's, most important job was as a "wife, mother and daughter". Poots defended himself saying his statement was "not sexist" and that he considered his most important job to be that of a "husband, father and son".
In October 2020, he was criticised by members of Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party after saying coronavirus was more common in nationalist areas. He stated: "There is a difference between nationalist areas and unionist areas - and the difference is around six to one". The Department of Health issued a statement confirming that "data on Covid infections is not collected according to religious or political affiliation"
His election marks a turning inward in DUP policies back to their fundamentalist protestant and Paisleyite Free Presbyterian Church roots (as opposed to the relatively more mainstream Presbyterian Church affiliation of Jeffrey Donaldson). In so doing it may serve to further alienate the DUP from an increasingly liberal and diverse N. Ireland society. It may stem the flow of voters to the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party but will hardly stem the rise of the "small u" unionist but non-sectarian Alliance Party which has come close to overtaking the DUP in recent opinion polls.
Arlene Foster was the first Anglican to lead the DUP and may have broadened its appeal beyond its primary Presbyterian base. It will be interesting to see whether Anglican voters will now abandon the DUP for their traditional home in the almost moribund Ulster Unionist Party, previously led by David Trimble, and whose current leader Steve Aiken has also just resigned. So far, British Army veteran Doug Beattie is the only declared candidate for the position.
In electing a relatively unknown N. Ireland politician and rejecting their experienced Westminster Leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP may also be turning inward from involvement in Westminster politics following the widespread sense of betrayal by Boris Johnson over the N. Ireland Protocol. However it is difficult to see how emphasizing its differences with the rest of the UK by electing a creationist leader will aid the Union in the long run.
Arlene Foster, together with Jeffrey Donalson and previous Westminster leader Nigel Dodds had played a key role in derailing Theresa May's attempts to ratify a Brexit deal which would not have required "a border down the Irish Sea". DUP MPs have all but outlived their usefulness to Boris Johnson at Westminster, whose priorities are now clearly centred around gaining a trade deal with the USA. But his failure to win the DUP leadership can hardly increase Jeffrey Donaldson's influence with Conservative and ERG Brexiteers there.
It's probably fair to say that many nationalists will be delighted at Poots' election, seeing it as a further diminution of unionist influence in Westminster and increasing irrelevance for many voters in N. Ireland itself. Poot's creationism and opposition to all liberal or secular reforms nicely encapsulates the party's increasing isolation from just about everyone else. But it does nothing to further reconciliation within N. Ireland itself which many see as a prerequisite for a successful united Ireland in the future.
That process will have to await a while. Perhaps the next N. Ireland Assembly elections, scheduled for May 2022 will reinforce recent trends towards a less sectarian body politic, with the non-sectarian Alliance Party and Greens making further gains. On the Nationalist side, perhaps the more moderate Social Democrat and Labour party will also recover some of the initiative from Sinn Féin. I wouldn't be holding my breath, however. Political change in N. Ireland tends to move at a glacial pace.