The new leader of Northern Ireland’s most powerful political party has admitted that post-Brexit trading rules could stay in place until at least 2024 and ruled out toppling the region’s government in protest at the regime.
Edwin Poots, who was ratified as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party after a three-hour meeting of the party’s executive on Thursday evening, swept to power promising to take a tougher stance on the Northern Ireland protocol than his ousted predecessor Arlene Foster.
In a live-streamed address on Thursday night, he struck a softer tone, ruling out dramatic actions such as torpedoing the region’s government in protest at a regime that imposes high costs on businesses and strikes a blow to the heart of unionism by creating a customs border in the Irish Sea.
“Our institutions are not a bargaining chip in our campaign to get rid of the protocol,” said Poots, who celebrated his 56th birthday on Thursday. “The guaranteed way of ridding ourselves of the divisive protocol is through the Assembly . . . if we haven’t achieved it before then.”
The Assembly, Northern Ireland’s devolved government, will get to vote on some aspects of the protocol every four to eight years, starting in late 2024.
“In the meantime, we will continue to employ political tactics to continue the pressure and let Dublin see that it isn’t some hiccup but rather something that has the worrying capacity to destabilise relationships that they gained most from,” Poots said.
Poots, who appeals to conservative unionists but alienates others with social policies that deny gay rights and abortion, vowed to immediately begin preparations for next May’s Assembly ballot, which he described as “the greatest Titanic struggle of an election” the DUP has faced.
“When unionism’s back is against the wall, history has proven that we will come out fighting,” he said. He pledged to unite the warring factions of a party left deeply scarred by the brutal removal of its leader and the many constituencies that have splintered from unionism.
Poots has said that he will not take the job of first minister so he can focus his energy on reviving the party, but has not yet announced who will lead Northern Ireland’s government, where the DUP is the biggest party.
Jeffrey Donaldson, who lost out in the DUP’s two-horse leadership race, and several other prominent DUP members, including economy minister Diane Dodds and her husband Nigel Dodds, a member of the House of Lords, left the room before Poots’ speech. “Possibly the lateness of the hour,” Poots’ ally Ian Paisley Junior said, insisting that the tone of the meeting was not “heated”.
Paul Bell, a DUP executive committee member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, announced plans to quit the party immediately after Poots was ratified, predicting that the party would lose “tens of thousands of votes”.
“The people in Fermanagh and South Tyrone will vote for anybody but the DUP . . . because of what took place before the election,” Bell added.
Jim Allister, leader of the TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice) party whom Poots criticised in his speech, tweeted: “DUP, clearly, in disunity and disarray. Sorry to disappoint his ego, but I do not fear Edwin Poots but what his hapless leadership will do to unionism.”