What to make of the triumph of Edwin Poots, the new leader of the Democratic Unionist party, who defeated the party’s Westminster leader Jeffrey Donaldson by 19 votes to 17 in its first ever leadership election?
Poots’ victory marks for some the definitive end of the party’s moderate turn instituted by Peter Robinson in 2008. Those not au fait with the intricacies of the DUP may find the suggestion of moderation risible. But Robinson – and indeed his own successor, Arlene Foster – recognised that for unionism to succeed, a more open approach was needed. While the execution of that strategy was often lacking, the intent was there.
For many within the party – and the broader unionist tribe – this was an uncomfortable spell and one pockmarked by setbacks and perceived retreat, culminating in the strategic calamity of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Perhaps Donaldson, often seen smiling alongside Nigel Dodds during those heady but ultimately futile days of Westminster ascendancy, was seen to have had too many fingerprints at the scene of the crime.
The Protocol is the primary challenge facing Poots. Throughout the party’s low-key election campaign he has made a commitment to undermine its implementation and facilitate its demise, despite heading up the Stormont department tasked with its enforcement.
Poots needs to be honest with unionists and loyalists about how he intends to do this beyond the vague commitments of his manifesto. As shown by the disturbances in Northern Ireland at Easter, and the rolling campaign of protest since, loyalism is at a particularly acute point. The danger facing Poots is that by failing to live up to his promise, the grassroots may become thoroughly disenchanted with political unionism; this would create a profoundly dangerous vacuum.