THE DUP leadership contest will take place on May 14 and in just over a week we’ll find out who’s going to be leading unionism through what’s likely to be one of the most tumultuous periods for the union since partition.
The conversation about a new Ireland has not only begun – despite the Trojan efforts of the DUP and the UUP to strangle it – but it is hotting up with every day that passes. And while that observable fact in a sane place would lead unionism finally to consider how best to dial down the rhetoric and stop the haemorrhaging of voters which its continued grey conservatism is driving, it appears that the opposite has happened. While there has been deep discontent within the party over Arlene Foster’s leadership for some time, the Protocol debacle has deepened the discontent, and it was extremely telling that the straw that broke the camel’s back was Mrs Foster’s decision to abstain on an Assembly vote on banning gay conversion therapy.
The fact that that was the trigger – even if it was some way down the list of the plotters’ leadership grievances – was a symbolic gesture, if you like, by the reactionary forces within the party who instigated the drawing up of the letter and the ultimate resignation of Mrs Foster.
But while the heave against Mrs Foster was clearly led by elements in the party favouring the leadership of Edwin Poots – a decidedly dour and uncharismatic religious fundamentalist – the tortured politics of the party mean that a victory for Jeffrey Donaldson could not be in any way be described as a victory for moderates. Because while the Stormont and Westminster arithmetic is nowhere near being settled and the battle has only begun, Mr Donaldson has been endorsed by some of the most controversial, regressive and confrontational figures among his MP colleagues.
Early speculation that the process of appointing a new leader was going to be a Poots coronation instead of a competition have dissolved as it became clear that the brash and confident thrust against Foster was most likely a bluff and/or a gamble. Because it’s clear that reports that Poots had a strong majority of MLAs behind him were in fact largely baseless. As the days after Mrs Foster’s dramatic step-down passed, it became clear that there was no rush to declare for Poots, especially when it emerged that Mr Donaldson was going to throw his hat in the ring.
Beyond the leadership election, the new leader will face a difficult choice as head of a party for whom one issue now towers above all others: the Protocol. Should he call a snap Stormont election, or should he continue on until next May in the increasingly threadbare hope that the Protocol can be ditched? Both options present huge risks. A quick election could see the DUP capitalise on unionist Protocol anger – but equally it could see them badly punished for helping to put it in place. Whatever happens, Jim Allister is ready to go on the offensive. And the prospect of that battle is not something that fills those of us hoping for progress with optimism.