Edwin Poots has been elected as the new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, while Paula Bradley has been elected as deputy leader after a vote of the party’s parliamentarians. It means that the DUP’s legislators have elected as their leader a committed social conservative who believes that the Earth is just 6,000 years old and who rejects the theory of evolution, and as their deputy leader one of the party’s most liberal elected politicians, who has said she will be a “critical friend” to Poots’ leadership.
What’s happened? It’s partly because these elections are, yes, in part a repudiation of Arlene Foster’s relatively moderate leadership, including her recent decision to abstain on a motion to ban gay conversion therapy, rather than to vote against. But they are a reputation of the DUP at Westminster too, and their perceived responsibility for the outcome of the Brexit process, which has seen the creation of a deep regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, and one that is likely to grow. “Blunders have consequences,” is how one DUP politician put it to me.
And it is also an assertion of the rights of members of the legislative assembly over members of Parliament, and a desire to change to survive: albeit in a way that puts the leader and deputy leader sharply and visibly at odds on a number of social issues.
What is less clear is whether this new team – which is likely to be represented by Paul Givan, a longtime ally of the new leader, as Poots has vowed not to fill the role of First Minister himself – has any more chance of navigating the challenges the DUP faces. That means avoiding the loss of its traditional votes to the TUV and of moderate votes to the Alliance and the UUP (itself due to receive new leadership in short order). It is also unclear whether they can keep power sharing on the road as the protocol and broader unionist discontent at the economic and political settlement in Northern Ireland continues to fester.
While the old leadership bears some of the responsibility for the problems of the past, not all of them can fairly be laid at the door of Foster, and many of them cannot simply be wished away by a new leader.