HARDLINER Edwin Poots was yesterday elected leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, sparking fears over the future of the Northern Ireland peace process.
Mr Poots, a creationist who believes the planet is 6,000 years old, marks a return to the DUP’s fundamentalist roots - and that is expected to spell trouble in relations with Sinn Fein.
The agriculture minister won a razor-thin victory over the party’s Westminster leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson following the first leadership race in its 50-year history. The DUP’s elected members at Westminster and Stormont split in Mr Poots’ favour 19 votes to 17.
The race came after Arlene Foster, also Northern Ireland’s first minister, announced her resignation last month.
Mrs Foster was ousted by party colleagues. The Northern Ireland Protocol was a key factor in her downfall, but the DUP’s grassroots were also unhappy at what was seen as her relatively moderate approach on some social issues.
Mrs Foster will step down as party leader on May 28 and as first minister at the end of June. Mr Poots, 55, has said he would like to remain as agriculture minister and would not take on the first minister role. It is unclear who will take over as first minister, or how that arrangement will work.
While Sinn Fein appeared to welcome the end to uncertainty with Mr Poots’ election, his replacement of the more moderate Mrs Foster could have important implications for the power-sharing executive at Stormont.
In his acceptance speech, Mr Poots pledged that the DUP would be the ‘authentic voice’ for unionism.
He said he was looking forward to a ‘positive relationship right across Northern Ireland with my party colleagues and indeed with people from other parties’.
He said the Northern Ireland Protocol, which places a trade border down the Irish Sea, has proven to be a ‘massive challenge for us’. Mr Poots said he was due to speak to Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis last night and will meet him next week.
Mr Poots became an MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) for the Lagan Valley constituency in 1998 and has also served on Lisburn City Council. He has served as Northern Ireland minister for the environment, as minister for arts, culture and leisure, and as health minister.
Only three people have held the role of DUP leader since the party was established in 1971 - its founder the late Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Mrs Foster.
Responding to Mr Poots’ election, Sinn Fein finance minister Conor Murphy told the BBC: ‘To be quite honest, I had no particular preference for either candidate for the leadership. What I want to see is Edwin bring some stability to that party.
‘We have been suffering in the Executive from internal instability within the DUP who are one of the leading partners in government here.
‘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.
‘I wish Edwin well, I have worked with him for a long number of years and I want to see him come back and work with the other four parties in the Executive.’
Brexit cancer drug blow
NORTHERN Ireland will miss out on a new cancer drug licensed for use in Britain because of a hard border for medicines.
The UK’s regulator has approved osimertinib as part of a global collaboration to fast-track the most promising treatments.
The drug for early stage lung cancer can improve survival rates by up to 75 per cent. But it cannot be used in Northern Ireland under the Brexit deal because it has not been approved by the European Medicines Agency.
A Government source said the issue was of ‘significant concern’ because it could affect other drugs and increase unionist anger at the Northern Ireland protocol.