Here comes the summer: Ulster unionism, the DUP, and a new era of division

By Ciaran Gill

It is now nearly three weeks since Edwin Poots was elected as the new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to replace Arlene Foster. While the world continues to grapple with COVID-19, Northern Irish unionism seems to be grappling with itself.

The first steps to oust Foster from her role were made at the end of April when a letter of no confidence in her leadership was signed by 22 MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) and four MPs. Foster’s position had been unstable for many months due to the impact of the DUP’s support for the Conservative Party which agreed, with the EU, to the introduction of the Northern Ireland Protocol. The straw which broke the camel’s back, meanwhile, came in the form of Foster’s decision to abstain on a motion in the Northern Ireland Assembly calling for a ban on gay conversion therapy.

An internal DUP contest saw Edwin Poots, Northern Ireland’s Minister for Environment and Rural Affairs, take the leadership role. Foster has since commented on her ousting by saying that “even by DUP standards it was pretty brutal”, and has even questioned the veracity of the circumstances which led to her removal. “I still have yet to see the letter, so-called”, she said, “I’m beginning to wonder is there a letter at all”.

The “brutal” way in which Foster was replaced has caused a rupture within the DUP leadership. Poots beat the more moderate Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP to the leadership of the party but tensions between the two were in full view when Donaldson, alongside Arlene Foster, walked out of a party meeting at the end of last month before Poots gave a speech to accept his nomination as party leader.

The depth of division within the party was crystallised further when Sir Jeffrey alleged last week that members of the Ulster Defence Association – a paramilitary and criminal organisation – had threatened members of his team during the leadership election. Groups such as the Ulster Defence Association have been vociferous in their opposition towards the Northern Ireland Protocol, given that it has led to an increased number of checks on goods coming across the Irish Sea.

Although the DUP as a whole has made clear its lack of support for the Protocol, Poots’ opposition to it is particularly robust, as shown in his recent interview with Andrew Marr when he said that the EU had been using Northern Ireland as a political “plaything”.

The DUP, therefore, with a new leader in place but seeking to manage internal divisions, has been undergoing a lot of change. The same can be said for the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which has also just elected a new leader: Doug Beattie MLA, who ran for the role unopposed.

Beattie was first elected as an MLA in 2016 and before entering politics, was a soldier in the British Army who served in areas such as Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Beattie, who had been seen as a leadership contender for several years beforehand, has sought to distance the UUP from the DUP, writing recently in The Irish Times that he wants to “promote and develop a confident, progressive and inclusive unionism with an agile purpose and a welcoming approach which actually strengthens the union”. Despite presenting a different approach to unionism, Beattie does share Poots’ opposition to the Protocol, writing in the same article that it is “creating deeper divisions within our society, making reconciliation harder”.

It could be argued that the UUP’s decision to appoint Beattie as leader has been vindicated given the results of LucidTalk polling, released on 25 May, which showed that support for the UUP had risen by two percent over a quarter, while the DUP had suffered a loss of three percent.

The DUP’s commentary on the Protocol has been strident, as shown in a recent statement which said that it “presents the single greatest threat to stability in Northern Ireland in a generation”. With Northern Ireland’s marching season laying wait around the corner, however, the recent polling results indicate that there may be appetite within unionism for a rhetoric that is less belligerent, especially so given the economic benefits for the province that could flow from it essentially having feet in both the UK and EU markets.

This week, Edwin Poots is set to announce his ministerial team which will include his nomination for the new Northern Ireland First Minister. The current favourite is Paul Givan MLA, a close colleague of the new leader who is also an MLA for the Lagan Valley constituency.

With Northern Ireland at a crossroads, however, whether the DUP (and any new DUP First Minister) will be the long-term conduit of unionist sentiment is not yet clear. With the political temperature rising, a summer of interest awaits.