Brexit Dominates as Northern Ireland’s DUP Picks New Leader

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party will select a new leader on Friday, setting the stage for a heightened campaign against the Brexit deal which has inflamed tensions in the region.

The region’s Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots, a notoriously fierce critic of the Brexit agreement, had long been the narrow favorite over Jeffrey Donaldson, 58, who leads DUP lawmakers at the U.K. parliament in London. Yet Donaldson is now more likely to win, according to odds from Flutter Entertainment Plc’s Betfair unit. Poots is also known for expressing some controversial views on social issues.

Brexit Dominates as Northern Ireland’s DUP Picks New Leader

Whoever wins, they are likely to step up a campaign against the Northern Irish protocol of the Brexit agreement, which has enraged unionists. Outgoing leader and First Minister Arlene Foster’s decision to quit last month was in part fueled by criticism that she was insufficiently tough in opposing the protocol, which treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the U.K.

The DUP’s 28 members in the devolved government and eight in the Westminster parliament will vote by secret ballot with a result expected by about 5pm in Belfast.

“There is no political downside in being against this protocol for any new DUP leader, but how much they will be able to do about it remains unclear,” said Peter Cardwell, a former special adviser to two Northern Ireland Secretaries in the U.K. government. “Boris Johnson and the EU owe the DUP nothing at the moment.”

The protocol effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs area and much of the single market. That means goods coming from mainland Britain need to be checked before or on entry to the region to ensure they meet the bloc’s rules and standards. Unionists see it as weakening ties to the U.K. while making business more difficult.

Ireland’s Prime Minister Micheal Martin will meet with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson today with Northern Ireland on the agenda.

Meanwhile, tensions in a region that was racked by decades of violence are at their highest in years. More than 70 police were injured in rioting last month which was at least partly fueled by Brexit.

If Poots, 55, wins, he will split the role of party leader and Northern Ireland’s first minister. He has previously garnered attention for expressing controversial views such as telling the BBC he believed the earth was about 6,000 years old and attempting to challenge a court ruling allowing gay and unmarried couples to adopt children, according to the BBC. Last year he said nationalist areas of Northern Ireland had about six times more coronavirus transmission than unionist areas.

Brexit Dominates as Northern Ireland’s DUP Picks New Leader

Poots “will connect with the religious right of the party,” Jonathan Tonge, professor of politics at University of Liverpool said. “Donaldson is more likely to appeal to unionism generally.”

Regardless of social issues, the new leader will be judged on what concessions they can get on the protocol. Negotiations between the U.K. and EU are ongoing, but what would satisfy unionists is unclear as the EU is adamant the protocol won’t be removed entirely.

“They will need somehow to persuade their supporters that they’ve modified the protocol sufficiently to make a difference,” Adrian Guelke, emeritus professor of politics at Queen’s University Belfast, said. “That’s going to be very difficult because the anger about being treated differently to the rest of the U.K. is sticking in the craw of unionists, so I’m not sure changes at the edges is really going to do the job.”

The new leader will also have to contend with not negotiating directly with the EU, and having little leverage with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has a comfortable majority in parliament. That contrasts with his predecessor Theresa May who relied on the DUP to prop up her government.

Whatever happens, there’s little prospect of a return to the violence that racked the region in the 1970s and 1980s.

“There is absolutely no appetite for a return to violence from the vast, vast majority of people in Northern Ireland,” Cardwell said. “There is too much to lose, and all parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly now say they are entirely committed to peaceful and democratic means.”

Even so, there is a risk that after the April rioting, wrangling over the protocol could serve as a catalyst for more street unrest over the summer. That in turn could be magnified by the unionist marching season in late June and July.

“We have a very unhappy and deeply divided society about this with no obvious answer,” Guelke said. “The protocol is felt very deeply by a much wider group of people within unionism.”

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