Almost one week on from Edwin Poots’ dramatic accession to the DUP leadership, many still find themselves in the limbo land of wondering who the man exactly is. A long-term frontline Northern Irish politician, Mr Poots has been engaged in public service since the 1990s. With him being the first elected leader of the DUP in fifty years, in this article I want to build a profile on the new face of Unionism.
A long-term politician, Mr Poots has been an MLA for Lagan Valley since 1998; prior to this, Mr Poots served on the Lisburn City Council. Since joining Stormont, Mr Poots has served in many ministerial and committee roles. He served as Chair of the Committee for the Centre, as well as service on the Environmental Committee, between 1998 and 2003, Mr Poots has long been placed as key figure in the environmental affairs of Northern Ireland. Whilst he wouldn’t become Minister for the Environment until 2009, it was in 2007 when he debuted as a frontline minister whilst serving as Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure. However, a cabinet reshuffle in 2008 meant Mr Poots would miss out on a second year in this position, he was dropped from cabinet and became Deputy Lord Mayor of Lisburn on 23 June 2008. It 2011, Mr Poots became Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety until he was replaced by Jim Wells MLA in 2014. Since January 2020, Mr Poots has served as Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.
An aspiring party leader, Edwin Poots fulfilled his hopes by being elected leader of the DUP on the 14th of May 2021; he defeated electoral rival Sir Jeffrey Donaldson 19 votes to 17. Whilst it is common convention that the leader of the DUP — by virtue of the mechanisms of the Good Friday Agreement 1998 — also become First Minister of Northern Ireland. However, it is expected that Mr Poots will focus on internal party matters, and shall instead nominate a party colleague to take up the position instead. Whilst no announcements have been made, it is expected that Paul Givan will succeed Arlene Foster as First Minister.
Unionist politics runs deep in the Poots family. Mr Poots’s father, Charles Poots, stood as a candidate in the 1969 Northern Ireland general election for the Protestant Unionist Party, and was also a key figure in the formation of the Democratic Unionist Party of which he son is now leader-elect. Mr Poots son, Luke Poots, also sat in the Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council. However, Luke Poots refused to stand in the most recent elections following a controversial land sale which involved lobbying by his father, the leader-elect of the DUP.
In 2021, Mr Poots confirmed in an interview with Stephen Nolan that he had cancer.
If there’s one thing to be said for Mr Poots’s political views, it’s that they’re incredibly controversial. Perhaps the thing Mr Poots is most known for is that he is a Young Earth Creationist. He had stated it is his belief that the Earth was created in “4,000 BC”. His Christian-conservatism has played a key part in many of Mr Poots’s political actions and statements. Whilst serving as Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Mr Poots created controversy after stating he believed blood donations should be banned from homosexuals; he cited “high-risk”sexual acts as being a threat. Moreover, in 2012, Mr Poots reaffirmed this position by saying he wished to extent the ban to people who had slept with Africans and Prostitutes.
The conservative-controversy doesn’t end there. In 2013, Mr Poots challenged the extension of UK LGBTQ+ adoption laws to Northern Ireland. Similarly, upon his predecessor’s election to the DUP leadership in 2016, Edwin Poots stated he felt Arlene Foster’s primary responsibilities and duties were as “Wife, mother and daughter”; he lated stated this was not sexist.
More recently, Mr Poots has caused offence by stating that COVID-19 was largely present solely in Nationalist areas of Northern Ireland; “six to one” were his beliefs on the virus’s spreading. This statement forced the Ministry for Health, Social Services and Public Safety to publicly confirm they did not measure infection rates on the basis of constitutional allegiances. Mr Poots has also been a long-opponent of the lockdown restrictions imposed on Northern Ireland.
Edwin Poots hasn’t always been a politically polarising figure, however. A Lisburn based farmer, Mr Poots has been a reluctant advocate for climate change initiatives. Whilst not the most enthused actor, Mr Poots has recognised the need for Northern Ireland to do more with regard to Climate Change. He introduced his own Climate Change Bill to Stormont in March 2021, whilst a private members bill was also being debated.
What’s in the future of the DUP?
Mr Poots has definitely brought a more formal change to the DUP. Whilst the party has slowly been shifting further to the right of the political spectrum for many years, Arlene Foster’s leadership has kept the party somewhat in the centre of Northern Irish politics. With her now leaving the position, and the party afterwards, it seems Poots reign will lead the DUP further to the right that it has been for many years.
However, with Mr Poots not expected to take the position of first minister, and him making clear his priority is making the DUP more electable, it is unclear how his tenure as leader will go down. Will he follow his father’s strong conservative path, or will Poots make his party something Northern Ireland hasn’t seen before? Only time will tell.