The Democratic Unionist party has entrusted its future to a man who does not quite believe in the past. Edwin Poots is a young Earth creationist who thinks the planet is 6,000 years old.
Quips about dinosaurs are likely to haunt the newly elected leader of Northern Ireland’s biggest party, but his victory on Friday confirmed he is an ambitious and savvy politician.
Poots, 55, stepped aside temporarily as the region’s agriculture minister in February to undergo cancer treatment. He returned weeks later and helped engineer a successful putsch against Arlene Foster, the DUP leader and Northern Ireland’s first minister. “Pooted out”, said a headline.
Poots swiftly assembled a campaign team in the party’s first leadership contest – previous leaders were coronated – and outfoxed his only rival, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, to prevail in an election decided by the party’s eight Westminster MPs and 28 Stormont assembly members.
The Free Presbyterian rallied the party’s Bible-belt Paisleyite base but he also won over more mainstream colleagues who believe he can lead them through a perilous time for the party and Northern Ireland unionists.
“His creationist beliefs won’t matter to what sort of leader he will be. He doesn’t bang on about religion in the assembly,” said Jonathan Tonge, a University of Liverpool politics professor who is an authority on the DUP. “What matters is where he takes unionism in the next few years.”
Poots can be pragmatic – he has negotiated deals with Sinn Féin and the Irish government – and charming, even in front of nationalist audiences. “He’s affable and very comfortable in his own skin,” said Tonge.
Poots won on the promise of internal party reform and a more robust campaign against the Northern Ireland protocol.
Many assembly members blame Foster and a cadre of officials and advisers for blunders such as the cash-for-ash scandal and the DUP’s complicity in the creation of the post-Brexit Irish Sea border, seeing it as a threat to the region’s position in the UK.
Poots has promised to sweep out Foster’s coterie and appoint a party colleague as first minister rather than take the post himself, in order to focus on party restructuring. He also promised to intensify opposition to the sea border.
Unionist critics see two dangers in his leadership. A turbulent campaign against the protocol could collapse power-sharing at Stormont, leading to early elections with no guarantee the assembly could be revived.
Poots may also accelerate a haemorrhage of centrist supporters to the Alliance party, letting Sinn Féin become the biggest party and Michelle O’Neill first minister.
One party insider expressed confidence in the new leader’s pragmatism. “Edwin hasn’t been successful in politics by going down a route that leads to electoral oblivion.”