Northern Ireland

ANALYSIS: Edwin Poots' pitch needs to change if the DUP is to remain Stormont's biggest party

New DUP leader Edwin Poots and deputy leader Paula Bradley inside DUP HQ after winning the leadership battle. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA Wire
New DUP leader Edwin Poots and deputy leader Paula Bradley inside DUP HQ after winning the leadership battle. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA Wire

WINNING the leadership election was the easy bit. The real challenge for the new DUP leader begins today and it's likely to be an ongoing one.

In recent days, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had emerged as the frontrunner and the bookies' favourite, considered a safer, more moderate candidate who had the best chance of retaining support at current levels, and even attracting new voters.

Edwin Poots meanwhile surrounded himself with Christian fundamentalist acolytes rather than presenting a broad front and, significantly, it's that approach which appears to have paid off for him.

Suggestions of a sudden lurch to right have been tempered only in part by the election of Paula Bradley as deputy leader.

An immediate task for the new leadership team is to somehow seek to reunite the party and reconcile the two wings that emerged during the campaign.

The ballot result shows that 17 MPs and MLAs didn't want the agriculture minister as leader but perhaps there'll be some kind of grand gesture to demonstrate good will to the losing camp.

Here the role of newly-elected deputy leader may prove crucial. A largely unknown quantity outside north Belfast, Ms Bradley is regarded as being on her party's liberal wing, adopting a much softer line on social issues.

Giving her a prominent role, as first minister perhaps, would help quell disquiet among the disenchanted on the defeated side.

There's also a growing expectation that under its new leader power within the party will be decentralised.

But arguably the two camps that have emerged over the past fortnight represent deeper tensions within the DUP – and within unionism generally.

Mr Poots and his supporters appear to hark back to the days before the party agreed to share power, conveniently overlooking the fact that its electoral strength has been built to a large degree on making Stormont work.

They don't want 'continuity Arlene' and advocate a clean break with the previous leadership, which was inching the party away from its fundamentalist roots.

Efforts to turn back the clock may go down well with those who helped the agriculture minister secure the leadership but it's very possible it will alienate swathes of the electorate and slow down the already sluggish workings at Stormont.

Similarly, taking a hardline on the Irish language act will frustrate not only Sinn Féin but most of the Stormont parties that signed up to New Decade New Approach last year.

However, it is outside the party, where the greatest challenge lies. The DUP has consistently blamed everybody else for the Irish Sea border, failing to recognise that it was its approach to Brexit that helped precipitate the current trade arrangements.

Don't expect a mea culpa, while the leadership election literature would suggest Mr Poots plans to escalate opposition to the protocol by continuing to boycott the north-south institutions.

This disruptive approach will have limited impact and the notion that it would lead others to collapse the Stormont institutions, playing into the DUP's hands, is absurd.

If the DUP is to secure significant changes to the protocol it surely needs to be more diplomatic, finding sympathetic ears and seeking modifications and improvements rather than adopting an all-or-nothing approach.

Protest hasn't worked in the past and it is unlikely to see the EU and British government abandon this key element of the withdrawal agreement.

In this regard, Sir Jeffrey, with his Westminster experience, would have been more seasoned than Edwin Poots but the new leader has extensive experience of negotiation and taking a pragmatic approach.

But the greatest challenge facing the DUP is Northern Ireland's transforming demography and changing social attitudes.

This, as much as Stormont's three-year dormancy, fuelled the Alliance surge, and as the middle ground grows, the DUP's base contracts.

Increasingly, there is limited appeal among the electorate for badmouthing Sinn Féin and espousing socially conservative views.

The pitch needs to change if the party is to retain its position as the north's largest party. Long-term sustainability will be achieved by taking risks and making friends, not by circling the wagons.