The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is holding the first leadership contest in its 50-year history following the resignation of Arlene Foster. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, a Westminster MP, is taking on Edwin Poots, agriculture and environment minister in the Northern Ireland Executive, for the top job.
Just eight DUP MPs and 28 DUP Northern Ireland Assembly members get a vote in this contest – so 36 people in total (29 men and seven women). This is the narrowest selectorate of any party in Britain or Ireland. No public hustings are allowed. The result is expected around 5pm on May 14. Here is everything you need to know about the two men hoping to become the leader of Northern Ireland’s biggest unionist party.
What do these candidates stand for?
Both candidates have histories of being hardline. They opposed the Good Friday agreement (GFA) which ended the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The DUP refused to support the 1998 deal, arguing that its terms rewarded those who had perpetrated violence. Donaldson belonged to the pro-GFA Ulster Unionist Party at the time but his opposition to the agreement led to defection to the DUP by 2004. Donaldson objected to Sinn Féin’s presence in government while the IRA was still armed (disarmament eventually did come).
Yet both contestants also have a pragmatic streak. They recognise that working with Sinn Féin is unavoidable, otherwise the devolved power-sharing government collapses.
Where do the two candidates stand on Brexit?
There is very little difference between the two candidates in terms of their positions on Brexit. Neither supports how it has been introduced. The EU protocol creates a trade border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with the latter still aligned to some EU rules, despite Brexit. The DUP is particularly angry about the deal as Boris Johnson told the party’s conference that no Conservative prime minister “could or should accept such an arrangement” – and then signed up to one.
But Donaldson promises only “meaningful reform” (undefined) of the arrangement and Poots pledges a “judicial review” to assess its legality, without saying what happens if that fails.
But aren’t both to blame for the Brexit arrangements?
The DUP supported Brexit and has been criticised for thereby becoming midwife to the misfortune it has brought. Donaldson is criticised by supporters of Poots for being part of the team of DUP MPs in Westminster who were blindsided by Johnson and let this deal happen. Poots, on the other hand, is criticised by Donaldson’s backers for overseeing the building of border control posts for checks on goods entering Northern Ireland after Brexit.
Is one of them really a creationist?
Both the candidates have very conservative views on social issues and religion. Both opposed the same-sex marriage and abortion legalisation introduced by the Westminster government. The DUP would like to change the abortion law but seems unlikely to be able to do so.
Poots is from the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian wing of the DUP – hardline Protestantism. This was once dominant in the DUP but now represents only one in three party members. Poots is a creationist and believes that the Earth was created only around 6,000 years ago. In practical policy terms though, this matters far less than where unionism is going in the next 60 years. Donaldson is a member of the mainstream Presbyterian Church.
What are their key strengths and weaknesses?
Donaldson is likely to hold slightly greater appeal to “small u” unionists who want Northern Ireland to remain in the UK but are concerned that the DUP deters voters by making poor political judgements and with its social conservatism. He is the more probable electoral asset because he stands a better chance of holding on to voters tempted to defect to the UUP or the centre party, Alliance.
Until the last election, when his majority was cut, Donaldson had piled up huge wins in his Lagan Valley constituency. But he is portrayed as “Continuity Arlene” by critics. The coup unseating Foster as leader looks pointless if she is replaced by someone from the same background and views.
The other problem is Donaldson being a Westminster MP. He could become leader of the DUP but cannot be first minister of Northern Ireland while he has that job. And, in fact, could he really effectively lead the party from Westminster? If he resigned from Westminster, it would force a risky byelection in his constituency. And he’d need to find a seat to represent in the Northern Ireland Assembly. With days to go before the contest, we still await clarity on how all this would be sorted.
Poots knows how to work the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. He has been in the Assembly since 1998. He is well regarded as an agriculture minister. But it’s not clear if he has broader electoral appeal and there are fears that he would appoint a ministerial team drawn from a narrow fundamentalist wing of the party. The electoral appeal is crucial. Poots could stop DUP voters from moving right to the even tougher unionist party Traditional Unionist Voice but the DUP seems more at risk from defections to Alliance.
The DUP risks losing the first ministership to Sinn Féin at next May’s Assembly election. Sinn Féin only trails by one seat and so stands a good enough chance of becoming the largest party in the largest bloc (if nationalist parties combined outweigh unionist parties). That would be a disaster for the DUP and increase the pressure for a referendum on a united Ireland.
Poots has also said he would appoint someone else to be first minister if he wins the DUP leadership. This could be a useful ploy to get votes from assembly members hopeful of the job. Given he is in the assembly, Poots has no need to split the posts. A cynical view is that he is downplaying the role of first minister in case the DUP loses the position at the assembly election next May.
Who will win?
Difficult question, not least since we have no previous contests to reflect back on for signs. Logically, Poots should win, as he is popular within the assembly team, and they provide the most voters for the ballot. But Donaldson is a savvy campaigner.
If the small electorate is thinking in party terms, Poots wins. If they are thinking in electoral terms, Donaldson triumphs. Donaldson might just scrape a win, but only a fool would take a short price for this contest. It looks close.
An even more difficult question is what happens if it’s a tie. Penalties or straws perhaps? Assume there will be a second vote, but it will be a case of making up the rules.
Jonathan Tonge received funding from the Leverhulme Trust for a membership study of the Democratic Unionist Party.
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