The Democratic Unionist Party’s incoming leader Edwin Poots is considering asking first minister Arlene Foster to step aside early as part of an overhaul of the party’s front bench, people familiar with his plans told the Financial Times.
Poots narrowly defeated MP Jeffrey Donaldson to win the DUP’s first ever leadership contest on Friday evening, making him head of Stormont’s biggest political party at a crucial juncture, as Northern Ireland grapples with the fallout from Brexit and calls for a vote on Irish unification.
The 55-year-old — who is known to have a harder line than Foster on everything from post-Brexit trade arrangements to social issues including abortion and gay rights — is due to become DUP leader at the end of May, but has ruled himself out as the next first minister and said he will consult the party on candidates.
When Foster agreed to step down a week ago after a revolt by senior party figures, she said she would stay on as first minister for a month after leaving her DUP role, taking her up to the end of June.
One person familiar with Poots’ strategy said the incoming leader’s team was “actively looking to take the reins sooner” so they could deliver a political win in advance of July 12, the biggest day of the unionists’ summer marching season.
The Belfast Telegraph reported on Saturday that Poots was pressing Foster to step aside. Stormont member Jim Wells, an ally of Poots who lost the DUP whip three years ago and hopes to get it back under the new leadership, told the FT he had heard suggestions that Foster might leave earlier, but that it would be “entirely at the behest of Arlene”. The DUP declined to comment.
Loyalist activist Jamie Bryson tweeted that it “is a ridiculous proposition (and always was) that Arlene Foster will remain in post until the end of June”, adding that it was “time to hit the ground running”.
He has identified the Northern Ireland protocol, which imposes a customs border in the Irish Sea to avoid a post-Brexit border on the island of Ireland, as his number one priority but has so far refrained from saying what he would do if the border were not removed.
Wells said that Poots would be looking to overhaul the DUP’s front bench in Stormont. The current team includes education minister Peter Weir, economy minister Diane Dodds and Gordon Lyons, a junior minister at the executive office. Poots, who has not taken questions from reporters since his election, previously said he might not stay on as agriculture minister.
“Edwin is going to have to take soundings. What he’s not going to do is appoint a front bench by decree,” Wells said. “I’d be surprised if many of the present occupants of the front bench are still there.”
Ian Paisley Jnr, MP and son of DUP founder Ian Paisley, on Friday evening defended Poots’ conservative views on abortion, gay rights and other social issues, telling the BBC: “I’m reminded of the Frank Skinner line, you can be anything in Britain today except a Christian. That seems to be the issue. The BBC want to lambast the man because he happens to be a man of faith. You couldn’t do that if he was a Muslim. You wouldn’t do that if he was any other religion.”
Poots has previously said he believes the earth is only 6,000 years old, far younger than the 4.54bn years estimated by scientists. He has fought against gay couples’ rights to adopt children, and was criticised by a judge for showing bias when, as health minister, he tried to preserve a ban on gay men donating blood. He is also opposed to abortion.
“As a young person struggling with my own sexuality I can still remember homophobic comments from a previous DUP leader and colleagues left me feeling that I should either deny who I am or leave Northern Ireland,” Alliance Party Stormont member Andrew Muir tweeted on Saturday. “I got involved in politics to change that, because we must, and will.”
“Tomorrow morning there will be hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland at church who feel very strongly about these views,” Wells said. “They need someone to represent and articulate for them.”