Once upon a time there was a gap of 37 years between the changes of leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. Now, the match does not reach 37 days.
What to do with the Edwin Poots weeks: a coup against Arlene Foster with no political purpose, new depths in the polls, and a nomination of Paul Givan as Prime Minister of Northern Ireland opposed by the majority of the party’s elected representatives .
For Poots, it was all over before it really began. He will be remembered as the man who accomplished the remarkable feat of making his predecessor appear politically adept.
Poots fell at the first hurdle, unable to understand the plot. When the prime minister of Northern Ireland changes, a deputy prime minister must also be appointed, in this case by Sinn Féin. Otherwise, the fragile political apparatus of Northern Ireland collapses. The collapse would mean an election, which would be disastrous for the DUP.
Sinn Féin offered to rename its northern leader, but, to no one’s surprise that it had a weak connection to reality, only on the condition that the DUP or the British government introduce the Irish language provision. It was first promised 15 years ago, and again in the New Decade, New Approach deal, which restored payback last year. Checkmate, Poots agreed, but did not square this with his own party. Hence his forced departure.
With a presence at Stormont since 1998, Poots was an old-school DUP, part of their robust Paisleyite past. His victory was not only a backlash to the Brexit protocol imposed on Northern Ireland, but it satisfied those who still resent the removal of its founder and longtime leader, Ian Paisley, who left office in 2008. To the DUP he liked to call himself “family.” . Some family.
Poots didn’t even get an hour on his honeymoon, let alone a period. According to a LucidTalk Survey, 62% of the public immediately rated their performance as “bad” or “horrible”. Most grassroots unionists, including those in the DUP, wanted Jeffrey Donaldson as their leader. Even though he was runner-up to Poots last month, now they are sure to get away with it.
It has been only four years since the DUP was elevated to prominence across the UK by arithmetic chance and Theresa May’s ill-fated campaign in the 2017 general election. The DUP’s Westminster team, and Foster as leader, were seen as midwives of the DUP’s misfortune. Recklessly, they allowed Boris Johnson to use the DUP conference to launch his candidacy for Conservative Party leadership, denouncing the trade boundary between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In a year he signed up for that very thing, and the DUP has not recovered from the humiliation.
Foster helped the DUP reach electoral heights that it will not visit again. It drew a broader sample of union voters than Poots’ politically and socially conservative. Now, amid the ghastly embarrassment, Donaldson may be the act of rescue the party needs. However, he’s in Westminster and Poots’s man, Givan, is his prime minister. Both realities may change soon.
The internal chaos of the DUP may seem of little concern across the trade border from the Irish Sea. But these are volatile times in Northern Ireland. The political institutions of the Good Friday agreement are precarious. The fragile power-sharing assembly, which has collapsed almost 40% of the time since the 1998 agreement, is reeling once again. Another accident could be terminal. Westminster has grown weary of his antics, has already stepped in to legislate on abortion and same-sex marriage, and has now vowed to do the same with the Irish language.
Meanwhile, the DUP boycotts aspects of the all-island protocol agreements, and loyalists have spoken out in opposition. The DUP once provided a partial outlet for working-class loyalty: Now the marginalized, angered by Northern Ireland’s economic detachment from Great Britain and fearful of a united Ireland, blame the DUP.
The April riots subsided but could return. Where there should be fair representation, there is a void. The DUP is no longer for them, insofar as it was; and the Ulster Unionist Party, which revived with Doug Beattie but also prone to rapid leadership changes, never was.
Sinn Féin will surely take over as prime minister of the DUP in the impending assembly elections. It will be a symbolic blow that will further demoralize unionism fighting against unfavorable demographics and the movement to the center. Would the DUP return to Stormont after the election to operate in reduced circumstances?
But the game may not yet be ready for the DUP or Northern Ireland’s place in the union. Donaldson, assuming it’s him, can stop the chaos. Polls suggest that most people think Northern Ireland will stay in the UK for at least another decade. But at Poots-style attrition rates, the DUP would need another 100 leaders to carry out that decade.
Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest to Power
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism