A creationist could become the leader of a major British political party
The ruling Northern Ireland party faces a leadership election between two ultra-conservative candidates who opposed the Good Friday deal that ended the unrest in Northern Ireland. Of the two candidates, one is a creationist who rejects the theory of evolution, and the other is a former aide to a long-deceased far-right British politician.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest Unionist party in Northern Ireland, is holding its first leadership race in its 50-year history, led for 37 of those years by the party’s founder.; the Reverend Ian Paisley, followed by Peter Robinson and more recently Arlene Foster, both ratified without dispute.
Foster announced that she would step down as leader and prime minister of Northern Ireland on May 18 and late June respectively, after DUP politicians signed a letter of no confidence in her in part because she s abstained from voting to ban gay conversion therapy. , while his party voted against the ban.
The election will be decided by the narrowest selection of British or Irish politics. Only the party’s eight MPs and the 28 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly – 29 men and seven women – will decide the contest.
The DUP was founded in 1971 during the unrest in Northern Ireland by Paisley, an evangelical Protestant and head of the Free Presbytarian Church in Ulster. She had ties to various loyalist paramilitary groups and is often referred to as ultra-conservative, opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage. In recent years, it has overtaken the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) to become the largest Unionist party in Northern Ireland. In terms of MPs, it is the fifth largest party in the British House of Commons and holds the most seats in the deconcentrated Northern Ireland Assembly.
The outcome of the leadership race will only determine the new DUP leader, exceptionally the winner will not necessarily become Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. One of the candidates, Edwin Poots, has indicated he will divide the roles and appoint a prime minister. The other candidate, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, is a sitting MP in Westminster, and party rules state that the prime minister must be a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Poots is the Minister of Agriculture for Northern Ireland and also a creationist of Young Earth, a Christian fundamentalist position that maintains that the world is only about 6,000 years old, rejecting ideas like the theory of evolution and fossil record. A former farmer, Poots once fired two shotgun shells into the air to alert intruders to his home.
Aged 55, he has a solid union pedigree. His father, the late Charles Poots, was a founding member of the DUP alongside Paisley.
To say that Poots’ career has been marked by controversy is an understatement. In 2011, as Minister of Health, he banned homosexuals from donating blood and later said the ban should also apply to people who had sex “with someone in Africa or others. sexual relations with prostitutes “.
In 2020, he falsely claimed that the coronavirus was more common in nationalist areas, claiming that the difference in transmission between nationalist and unionist areas was “about six to one” – a completely imaginary figure, especially since COVID data in Northern Ireland is not collected on the basis of political or religious affiliation.
Despite this, or perhaps because of these controversies, Poots is popular within his party, garnering support from figures like DUP MP Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley Jr, son of the party founder – both die-hard trade unionists. in its own right.
The hope in hard-core circles is that a Poots regime will double the party’s resistance to what it sees as the encroachment of its traditional enemies; Sinn Fein and Irish nationalism more broadly, under the guise of progressive politics such as Irish language legislation, North-South cooperation and association with the EU.
Poot’s opponent is Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. Presented as a moderate candidate, he is a former aide to Enoch Powell, an English far-right conservative and later a politician of the Unionist party of Ulster, best known for his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ of 1968. speech against immigration, which has been accused of triggering a wave of racist violence. On Powell’s death in 2008, Donaldson joined other politically conservative figures such as Margaret Thatcher and David Trimble in commemorating Powell, even going so far as to call Powell a “true statesman” and lamenting the loss. of a “great intellect”.
Donaldson had a long and rich career in British politics, including participating in the negotiation of the peace process as a member of the UUP in 1998 and later leaving the negotiations to protest what he considered to be unacceptable concessions made to the nationalist side. .
Donaldson keeps a lower profile than his opponent, avoiding inflammatory rhetoric in favor of a more parliamentary way. While Donaldson can prevent the DUP from bleeding from moderate support, he is by no means a progressive candidate, consistently opposing same-sex marriage legislation and abortion rights.
The winner of the competition will have the task of saving the party’s public image, which has come under heavy criticism in the Unionist community for helping to secure a Brexit deal that included the controversial Northern Ireland protocol. The protocol resulted in a customs border in the Irish Sea, with Northern Ireland still part of both the EU’s single market and the UK’s internal market. This means that checks must take place on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, but also avoids placing a hard border on the island of Ireland; something prohibited by the Good Friday Agreement. A border separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK is extremely controversial for loyalists.
The DUP threw its weight behind Boris Johnson’s Brexit in an attempt to put ground between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and ended up in the hand. The party insisted it was duped after multiple assurances that there would be no maritime border from Westminster were found to be false, blaming it for creating a rift between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Since the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, support for the DUP among the loyalist community has come under increasing strain.
Jamie Bryson, Loyalist activist and editor of Unionist Voice, a union news site and monthly newsletter, said: “Arlene Foster’s incredible claim that there was ‘potential’ in the Protocol sparked amazement within the trade union community. Bryson believes the Protocol was “designed to mutilate the Union”.
The party responded to the criticism by encouraging resistance to the Northern Ireland protocol, using inflammatory rhetoric alongside angry loyalists. In February, DUP MP Wilson called for a “guerrilla war” against the protocol, using “any means at our disposal,” highlighting the DUP’s scramble to blame the protocol’s implementation away. of themselves. Although Wilson called his remarks “metaphorical,” they came less than a week before the Council of Loyalist Communities, a coordinating group representing key non-metaphorical loyalist paramilitaries, withdrew its support for the Good Friday Agreement. .
This was followed at the end of March by the worst unrest the region has seen in years. Hundreds of young people across loyalist areas revolted, with water cannons deployed and 88 police injured.
Quarrels also erupted at interface points such as Lanark Way between Loyalist and Nationalist communities, with young people on either side exchanging stones and fireworks through the burning interface gate, in a flash. disturbing sectarian violence.
The DUP’s reaction has been confused, with leader Foster saying the rioters “are a nuisance to Northern Ireland and only serve to distract from real law breakers in Sinn Fein” – a reference to key members of Sinn Fein controversially attending the funeral of Bobby Storey, former IRA intelligence chief and president of Northern Sinn Fein last June, despite COVID restrictions.
The riots ceased after the death of Prince Philip, supposedly out of respect for the royal family.
Amid the uproar on April 20, Foster abstained in a vote to ban gay conversion therapy, while the majority of his party voted against the ban. While Foster had been damaged by her handling of Brexit, her failure to advocate for gay conversion therapy saw her party colleagues reach the boiling point. On April 27, 85% of DUP politicians wrote a letter of no confidence to their party leader.
Bryson says “faith in the DUP is eroding”, believing that a new leader must “end the perpetual appeasement of nationalist claims and, of course, resist the Protocol with deeds rather than mere words” .
Bryson sees Poots as the man who restores confidence to the party, believing he is more committed to “stemming the tide of the appeasement process.”
However, taking a hard line will likely push more moderate voters into the arms of other unionist or non-sectarian parties, which could result in a substantial loss of power for the DUP. Trade unionists’ vote share fell dramatically by 5.5% between 2016 and 2019, ceding much of that support to non-sectarian parties like the Alliance Party, which more than doubled its share of the vote between 2017 and 2019. A recent poll also suggests that only 17% of 18-24 year olds in Northern Ireland consider themselves British, compared to 50% of those over 65.
Earlier this week, the UUP, the second-largest trade union party, was also engaged in a leadership race following the resignation of leader Steve Aiken. These contests come at a time of declining union vote share, both due to demographic shifts and more recently due to the emergence of a more viable non-sectarian middle ground. Slight drops were also seen in the nationalist vote.
While homophobia, creationism, and guerrilla metaphors might appeal to the most ardent supporters of the DUP, they will do little to gain the favor of those outside their base. With issues like Irish unity aired publicly, it will be the non-aligned demographic that ends up turning the tide in the next election. Northern Ireland is no longer a “Protestant state for a Protestant people”, in the view of James Craig, First Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, but rather a state on the verge of change.