Edwin Poots describes resignation of two of party councillors as 'peripheral'
DUP leader Edwin Poots has described the resignation of two of his party’s councillors in south Down as “peripheral” but said he would “continue to reach out to people”.
“I think it is peripheral but nonetheless I don’t want to lose anybody from the party, and therefore I will be continuing to reach out to people to seek to ensure that we keep as many people as possible and to bring people into the party, and that’s a course of work that we’ll engage in because fundamentally the DUP is a collection of individuals, strong personalities but all of those personalities’ number one focus is the maintenance of the union,” he told the BBC.
“We can’t do that in a divided way.”
Newry, Mourne and Down councillors Kathryn Owen and Glyn Hanna, and former Westminster election candidate Diane Forsythe, who is Mr Hanna’s daughter, are among a number to have left the party amid a bitter row over the removal of Mrs Foster and the subsequent election of Mr Poots.
They claimed they were victims of a purge.
Mr Poots was speaking in a Spotlight programme which is due to be broadcast on Tuesday evening.
Meanwhile, the DUP’s deputy leader has denied a purge is being carried out against dissenting voices in the party, following the resignation of several members.
Paula Bradley also rejected allegations of bullying and sexism linked to the leadership contest that saw Mr Poots elected as the successor to the ousted Arlene Foster.
However, Ms Bradley conceded that it may have been better to have conducted the controversial vote to ratify Mr Poots at a meeting of the party executive last month by secret ballot.
The North Belfast MLA, who was elected deputy leader in the same contest that saw Mr Poots assume the leadership, defended the party after a trio of resigning members made a series of incendiary allegations.
Ms Bradley said: “There’s been some unfortunate things that have happened, resignations that have happened, but I would definitely say we aren’t going through a purge.”
The latest resignations followed a move to remove Mr Hanna as the chair of the DUP South Down Association, and Ms Forsythe as secretary, at an AGM meeting at the weekend.
Announcing his decision to quit, Mr Hanna alleged some party members faced intimidation and bullying at the meeting of the DUP executive in Belfast last month, when Mr Poots’ election was formally ratified.
He claimed some of those who raised their hands in support of holding a secret ballot on the ratification were told to take their hands down.
Ms Bradley said she did not witness any such scenes at the meeting but she pledged to investigate the claims.
She said a secret ballot may have been a better way to conduct the ratification vote.
“If there had been a secret ballot, Edwin would still have won the secret ballot but, yes, if it had calmed what we have now, well then yes of course, with hindsight, absolutely,” she told BBC Radio Ulster.
Mr Hanna said a “purge” was ongoing against those who voiced concern at how Mrs Foster was treated and who supported Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in the subsequent leadership contest.
“I believe this is the beginning of the purge of anyone who spoke against the leadership, so I encourage others in the DUP with decency and integrity to consider their position,” he said.
Mr Hanna said there had been “open and unashamed bullying” by some in the party.
Ms Owen added: “It is apparent to me that there is a purging of Donaldson supporters, and it is only a matter of time before this continues across the party.
“It would be against my principles as a veteran, mother and independent woman to stand idly by and allow this behaviour to continue, rewarded by my silence and inaction.
“I have concerns over the future direction of the DUP, with many talented women and moderate individuals within the DUP feeling voiceless.
“The only way to stop this coercion and control is to remove the fuel that feeds it and empower those voices.”
In a statement, Ms Forsythe said she had faced “disrespectful attitudes” within the party, including “shameful sexism, ageism and the underlying tone of bullying”.
She said the bullying was now in “plain sight”, with members’ families “bullied and smeared” during the leadership contest.
“I can no longer be a part of this party in its journey to derail my precious country of Northern Ireland in this its centenary year,” she said.
She added: “The disintegration of this party in recent times has left me no option but to leave.
“The leadership of this party chose not to listen, chose not to acknowledge the divide in the party and repeatedly voiced their view that we need to ignore our differences and do what the leadership says.
“The public ousting from all who supported Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in Assembly posts was bad enough, but the local treatment of my father was an absolute disgrace.”
Ms Forsythe concluded: “The DUP have taken a path catastrophic for unionism and I can only hope that it can be recovered in some way by other means.”
Defeated leadership candidate Sir Jeffrey said it was highly regrettable that “senior and valued members now feel the DUP is no longer a warm house for them”.
“I fear that if Edwin fails to quickly get a grip of this situation, then many others may also conclude that the DUP is no longer capable of being a broad church and providing a home for the type of unionism we espouse,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
On a separate issue, Ms Bradley insisted that she had not been forced to backtrack on comments last week urging the party to stop blocking a paper on commissioning abortion services from being considered by the Executive.
The deputy leader suggested she had realised herself that her remarks were not in line with party policy.
“I am not infallible in some of the things I say,” she said.