Following a decade of sympathetic coverage by journalists and commentators pushing the narrative that the Democratic Unionist Party was truly interested in “outreach” to moderate pro-union or constitutionally agnostic voters in the north-east of the country, to most observers it seems that last Friday’s selection of Edwin Poots as the group’s new leader has very much returned it to its hardline politico-religious roots. A Biblical literalist from the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, the evangelical sect that played a major role in the foundation of the party, Poots’ narrow defeat of his more urbane rival Jeffery Donaldson has been presented as a triumph for the organisation’s conservative grassroots.
However even the candidacy of Donaldson offered little hope for any real change in the direction of the party given his association with the late Enoch Powell, the Conservative Party exile turned Ulster Unionist Party MP in the 1970s and ’80s, his defection from the UUP to the more ideologically compatible anti-peace process DUP in 2004 and his enthusiasm since 2016 for some of the worse aspects of Brexit. Just about the only good thing you could say about the former soldier in the disbanded Ulster Defence Regiment was that his years as an MP had put some Westminster manners on his Lagan Valley ways.
Of course, looking at the overall picture, that may have been Donaldson’s great failing in the eyes of the DUP faithful as he and a significant chunk of the Stormont and Westminster clique that has dominated the party in the years following the St Andrew’s Agreement of 2006-07 have been effectively neutered, with the hope of returning the organisation to its fundamentalist roots. Thereby seeing off any potential electoral challenge from the one-man band that is the Traditional Unionist Voice. To this we might add that the Irish and British press has reported that the changes at the top of the DUP leadership, beginning with the coup against Arlene Foster, came in part through the urging of the terror chiefs in the UDA, UVF and RHC. Making the outlook for consensus politics in the Six Counties very bleak indeed.
Finally one can’t help but wonder if the speculation that Edwin Poots has no intention of taking up the office of First Minister in the northern executive in order to concentrate on “reforming” the party, leaving the role to one of his deputies, is a sign that the DUP is intent on reducing the status or importance of the cross-community administration at Stormont before elections next year – when there is a real possibility that Sinn Féin might emerge as the region’s largest party. Poots, no doubt, does not want to be recorded in the history books as the last unionist First Minister of “Northern Ireland”. However by selecting someone steeped in the most uncompromising traditions of their party and their community, a scion of the founding generation of Democratic Unionism and Free Presbyterianism, of Troubles-era Orangeism and loyalism, the DUP is making that outcome a near certainty. That’s if Poots and company don’t bring down the whole edifice long before we get to that stage.