Who next leads the DUP matters hugely for the survival of devolved power-sharing in Northern Ireland
The risk to devolution comes from installation of a hardline DUP figure, prepared to boycott the all-Ireland aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, in protest against the EU Northern Ireland Protocol.
Removing Arlene Foster as DUP leader and First Minister was the easy part for the DUP. All it took was a letter of no confidence to the party chairman, signed by most Northern Ireland DUP Assembly members and several of its Westminster MPs. The difficult part for the DUP is finding a workable strategy to accompany its coup.
Who leads the DUP and who the party provides as First Minister of Northern Ireland matters hugely for the future of devolved power-sharing. It has often been the ultimate in loveless marriages but the DUP and Sinn Fein have to cooperate or devolution collapses. For half of Foster’s time as First Minister, the Assembly was suspended, restored uneasily last year.
There is talk of the DUP splitting the posts of party leader and First Minister, with relative moderate Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and more hardline Edwin Poots the likeliest candidates for the respective posts. The First Minister needs to be drawn from the Assembly. That is where power now resides for the DUP, its Westminster days in the sun a receding (and uncomfortable) memory. But separating the posts seems a bad way of managing a party’s internal tensions. A Westminster-based leader like Donaldson might struggle to control his party’s Assembly members (MLAs). A cynic might think that is the point.
A creationist and an opponent of same-sex marriage and abortion, Poots’ views might raise eyebrows this side of the Irish Sea
The risk to devolution comes from installation of a hardline DUP figure, prepared to boycott the all-Ireland aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, in protest against the EU Northern Ireland Protocol. Meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council cannot take place without ministers taking part – and four of the ten Executive ministers are from the DUP. The DUP might also block progress in terms of Irish language provision, agreed under the New Decade New Approach deal to restore devolution. A frustrated Sinn Fein could then abandon devolved government and everything collapses. There are precedents.
Against this, neither of the big two parties wants to be seen as collapsing devolved power-sharing. They both lost votes at the last Westminster election after each being blamed for the absence of devolution from 2017 to 2019. An Assembly election looms next year. Sinn Fein hopes to capture the First Minister position.
The selectorate for the DUP leadership is tiny: 28 MLAs, 8 MPs and 5 peers. The DUP is far more Unionist than it is Democratic, although sentiment among members does percolate upwards, as we saw with Foster’s unseating. There have been only coronations, not contests, for the three previous DUP leaders so we do not know how voting will be conducted.
If the DUP membership had a vote, Edwin Poots would surely win the leadership. He is ‘old school’ DUP, a member of the very socially conservative Free Presbyterian Church, to which one-third of DUP members belong (compared to less than 1 per cent of Northern Ireland’s population). A creationist and an opponent of same-sex marriage and abortion, Poots’ views might raise eyebrows this side of the Irish Sea.
But what really matters is where Poots takes the DUP politically, not religiously. He has been a rather good and pragmatic minister in the Northern Ireland Executive and might be realistic in office regarding the DUP’s capacity to remove the EU Protocol which has so angered different shades of unionism.
For hardcore loyalists, only outright removal of that Protocol will do. There has been serious violence against a deal which Boris Johnson once told the DUP he would never implement. For the next DUP leader, there is the dilemma of whether to continue an absolutist stance of abolishing any trade barriers between GB and Northern Ireland, or merely striving to mitigate their effects.
Arlene Foster might be forgiven for feeling slightly relieved to be out of all this.
Jon Tonge is a professor of politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of 'The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest to Power'.