LEO MCKINSTRY: If DUP gets this wrong, it could be death of the Union

LEO MCKINSTRY: If DUP gets this wrong, it could be death knell for the Union

Next month marks the centenary of the creation of the Northern Irish state: a moment that, for unionists, would normally be a cause for celebration. Yet they will greet this historic milestone with little enthusiasm.

Theirs is a movement in deepening turmoil, wracked by divisions, battered by social change, threatened by the inexorable demographics of a growing nationalist population and increasingly divorced from mainstream opinion in mainland Britain.

Rarely has their cherished link with the United Kingdom looked so vulnerable.

Into this toxic swirl, Arlene Foster’s sudden departure as Northern Ireland’s First Minister – and the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party – is a gift to those who hanker for a united Ireland and the dissolution of the UK.

Her ignominious exit – ousted by her own side over her perceived softness on issues including gay rights and co-operation with Sinn Fein – has dramatically intensified the unionists’ sense of crisis, and may prove the moment where the cries for Irish unity rise to a crescendo.

Next month marks the centenary of the creation of the Northern Irish state: a moment that, for unionists, would normally be a cause for celebration. Pictured: Stormont Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots

Never a hardliner in the mould of Ian Paisley, the rabble-rousing founder of the DUP and its leader for 37 years, Foster was a tough-minded pragmatist who preferred negotiation to confrontation. In contrast, much of her party is still gripped by the classic unionist siege mentality: precisely the wrong attitude for these times.

The tide of history is moving in one direction. Support for a united Ireland is at record levels: one opinion poll last year by Lord Ashcroft showed a slim majority of Northern Irish voters in favour of reunification, while another poll in February put Sinn Fein five points ahead of the DUP. The Republicans are on course to be the largest party in the Stormont Assembly after next year’s elections. Now the DUP faces the first leadership contest in its history.

This should be a golden opportunity for the party to build a broader platform that might secure the future of unionism by winning new supporters in the centre ground.

But it looks like the DUP will move in exactly the opposite direction, retreating into its reactionary comfort zone and clinging to the self-destructive pieties of Paisley’s ‘No Surrender’ outlook.

That blinkered option is a guaranteed way to lose further support from the moderates and would play perfectly into the hands of Sinn Fein.

The foolish embrace of extremism is depressingly highlighted in the fact that the favourite to lead them is Ulster agriculture minister Edwin Poots, whose father Charlie was close to Ian Paisley.

Into this toxic swirl, Arlene Foster’s (pictured) sudden departure as Northern Ireland’s First Minister – and the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party – is a gift to those who hanker for a united Ireland and the dissolution of the UK

With huge grassroots support in the DUP, Poots is almost the stereotype of the Protestant bigot, fiercely opposed to gay equality and the scientific fact of evolution. He instead voices his bizarre beliefs in the crackpot dogma of creationism, which holds – in defiance of all evidence – that the Earth is just 6,000 years old.

Other contenders are hardly more impressive. One is likely to be Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, a former aide to Enoch Powell. Despite his long membership of the Commons as MP for Lagan Valley, Donaldson has never exuded any real stature or authority.

Another could be Gavin Robinson, another MP, barrister and former Lord Mayor of Belfast, who has won plaudits for smooth style. Though his moderation – compared to Poots – could lose him the support of diehard activists.

Less likely would be a leadership bid from Ian Paisley Junior, the founder’s son, because he has been badly tainted by his own expenses scandal, which led to his suspension from the Commons in 2018.

With these uninspiring candidates, little wonder that the death knell could soon be sounding for the Union. Only vision, generosity and boldness can save it: but there is a precious lack of those qualities in the blinkered, self-destructive DUP.

Oddball hoping to take reins in Ulster claims Earth is a mere 6,000 years old 

By Harriet Line  

The favourite to take over from Arlene Foster as leader of the DUP is a creationist who believes the world is only 6,000 years old.

Edwin Poots, an agriculture minister in Stormont, announced his intention to stand for the leadership last night.

But the 55-year-old’s religious beliefs have raised eyebrows. In a BBC interview in 2007, Mr Poots said: ‘My view on the Earth is that it’s a young Earth. My view is 4000BC.’

He also questioned the Big Bang Theory, saying: ‘We’ve had lots of explosions in Northern Ireland and I’ve never seen anything come out of that that was good.

‘And you look at this Earth and you tell me that there was a big bang and all of a sudden all that is good about this Earth came out of it?’

He hit out at evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in the same interview, accusing him of wanting to ‘indoctrinate everyone with evolution’. Mr Poots has also weighed in on the age of the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland – a rock formation consisting of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns.

The visitor attraction, the result of volcanic activity, is estimated by geologists to be up to be 60million years old. Mr Poots told the Belfast Telegraph in 2009: ‘I don’t believe the Giant’s Causeway is 60million years old. If other people make an issue of that, it’s up to them. The Giant’s Causeway is a fantastic site, an asset which needs us to sell it and make it marketable. Whatever length of time it has been in existence will not undermine that message.’

He announced his intention to run last night, saying: ‘I am a proud Northern Ireland man, I love its people and its place, and it faces many challenging times. It’s with that in mind, I’m putting my name forward for the leadership for the Democratic Unionist Party. I look forward to the engagement and the debate with colleagues and the wider public in this contest.

‘Northern Ireland is a place that has had many great things over this last hundred years, I wish to see us rebuild, revitalise, reinvigorate and revive for the next hundred.’

It is unclear whether Mr Poots will have competition in his bid to take charge of Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party. The DUP has never had a contested leadership race. Other names thought to be in the mix include MPs Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Gavin Robinson.

Mrs Foster, who has led the party for more than five years, is standing down as DUP leader on May 28 and as First Minister in June.

There is some speculation that the twin roles she currently occupies could be split, with one politician taking on the role of party leader and another being appointed First Minister.

That would potentially allow an MP to lead the party from Westminster while a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly takes on the First Minister job.

Discontent at the DUP’s Brexit strategy was a major factor in Mrs Foster’s departure, with party rank-and-file laying some of the blame for the emergence of an Irish Sea border at her door.

Her resignation on Wednesday came a day after party colleagues moved against her, with a majority of senior elected representatives signing a letter of no confidence.

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