Edwin Poots calls for unionism to unite and end the 'bickering' of the past after his DUP leadership win
NEW DUP leader Edwin Poots has called for unionism to unite and end the "bickering" of the past.
In an acceptance speech that made no mention of nationalism or his political adversaries, the agriculture minister said he would be "reaching out" to his unionist counterparts in an effort to get "unionism working together".
Mr Poots was speaking immediately after being crowned the DUP's new leader, following a vote of the party's 28 MLAs and eight MPs.
The Lagan Valley MLA won the first election in his party's history by the slimest of margins, winning the support of 19 of his colleagues compared to 17 votes for Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.
North Belfast MLA Paula Bradley was also elected the party's new deputy leader, defeating East Derry MP Gregory Campbell by 18 votes to 16.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson congratulated Mr Poots in a tweet.
"People across the UK are best served when we work together, and I look forward to working with him, BrandonLewis and the wider Executive as we build back stronger for the people of Northern Ireland," he said.
Taoiseach Michéal Martin also extended his congratulations, and said his door is always open.
Outgoing Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken wished Mr Poots well, but said: "Edwin may try to signal his election as a new era... but no matter what way you look at it, his fingerprints are all over the Northern Ireland Protocol."
TUV leader Jim Allister struck a similar tone.
Other parties stressed the need for the new DUP leader to reach out beyond unionism.
Sinn Fein Finance Minister Conor Murphy told the BBC: "I had no particular preference for either candidate for the leadership.
"We have been suffering in the Executive from internal instability within the DUP... and I hope that settles down and we can get back to doing what the Executive have committed to do and that is see our way through the pandemic, deal with all of the challenges we have around economic downturn, the challenges that Brexit will throw at us and all of the commitments we made in going back into government."
Alliance Party North Down MP Stephen Farry wished both Mr Poots and Ms Bradley well adding he had "always found him personable and at times he can be pragmatic".
Alliance Party leader and Justice Minister Naomi Long tweeted her congratulations adding:
"We have huge challenges ahead as an Executive and our success will depend on our willingness to work together for the common good."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood on Twitter said it was "now time for everyone to recommit to working together."
Towards the end of the two week leadership campaign, Sir Jeffrey had emerged as the bookies' favourite and while the Lagan Valley MP is thought to have had the support of many of the party's more high profile figures, Mr Poots appears to have drawn strong support among Stormont backbenchers.
Mr Poots has made clear that he would break with DUP tradition and not appoint himself Stormont first minister fuelling speculation that whoever he chooses to fill the executive's shared top post will send a clear signal about his future intentions and attitude to power-sharing.
Mr Poots said he was looking forward to having a "positive relationship" with DUP colleagues and people from other parties.
"I think the opportunities for Northern Ireland are great, the opportunities for us to make Northern Ireland a great place after this 100 years has passed and we move into a new 100 years," he said.
"Throughout all of that period this party has been the authentic voice of unionism and will continue to be the authentic voice of unionism under my leadership," he said.
Mr Poots said he wanted to prioritise job creation and improving educational attainment in disadvantaged areas as well as tackling the problems within the health service and address the spiralling waiting lists.
The agriculture minister urged fellow unionists to work with him to oppose the Irish Sea border.
"The Northern Ireland Protocol is proving to be a massive challenge for us and if we are to fight this to ensure that everybody in Northern Ireland is not worse off as a consequence of the protocol, then it's for us to do that together," he said.
After his narrow defeat, Sir Jeffrey said he had no regrets standing in the race.
"What we sought to do was to offer the party a choice and I have no regrets about putting my name forward to give the party a clear choice in the decision they had to make," he said.
Newly elected DUP deputy leader Ms Bradley said she would at times be a "critical friend" to Mr Poots.
"It will be a great honour to serve this great party as deputy leader, I will do so to the very best of my ability, I will give it my all," said Ms Bradley.
"I will support our leader in any way I can."
Irish News columnist Brian Feeney said he believed the new leadership team represented a "seriously divided party".
"It's a step backwards in every sense," he said.
"Edwin Poots' antics will guarantee instability – he will refuse to operate the north-south strand of the Good Friday Agreement."
Mr Feeney said the nomination for first minister "could be so contentious it could mean the collapse of the executive".