The admittedly narrow victory for Edwin Poots in the Democratic Unionist Party – by 19 votes to 17 – nonetheless marks a departure from the style and direction of his predecessor, Arlene Foster, forced out of office to make way for him. The defeated candidate, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, was seen, fairly or not, as a “continuity Arlene” figure, more of a pragmatist and less of a traditionalist than Poots – though the differences between the two men, and indeed across Ulster unionism more generally, are easily and often exaggerated. Poots is a true Paisleyite, and always has been, like his father before him. He comes from a political place unlike anything else in the British Isles.
At any rate, Poots now calls himself the “authentic voice of unionism”, thinly disguised code for a tilt towards some of the more muscular tendencies within the unionist movement. His victory has huge implications for Brexit too, most likely leading to some sort of renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement, and thus the wider Brexit deal.
In not taking on the position of first minister – but remaining as agriculture minister – Poots seems to want to concentrate on the political and campaigning aspect of leadership, rather than the administrative and bureaucratic. After all, the elections for the Northern Irish assembly next May will be crucial, and time is short. Poots may even try somehow to bring together the various separate and sometimes bickering brands of unionism into some sort of coalition or electoral alliance; he spoke of “reaching out to other leaders in unionism”. Oddly, he might occupy the kind of role that Gerry Adams and John Hume on the Republican and nationalist side for a while – party leader semi-detached from the government of the province.
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