Arch-Brexit Deal Critic Set to Lead Northern Ireland’s DUP

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Edwin Poots won the race to lead Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, with tensions around Brexit’s impact on the troubled region now set to intensify.

An arch critic of the Brexit divorce deal which treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the U.K., Poots received 19 votes, beating Jeffrey Donaldson with 17. Poots, the region’s agriculture minister, succeeds Arlene Foster, who was toppled by an internal party revolt in part because she wasn’t considered tough enough on the so-called protocol.

“The Northern Ireland protocol has proven to be a massive challenge for us,” Poots said. “If we are to fight this, to ensure that everybody in Northern Ireland is not worse off as a consequence of the protocol, then it’s for us to do that together.”

Poots has pledged to step up a campaign against the protocol, which effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs area and much of the single market. Tensions in a region 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.

The protocol 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,and unionists see it as weakening ties to the U.K. while making business harder.

“Poots has worked with Sinn Fein in the Northern Ireland Executive, but he is on the hardline wing of the party which is also very socially conservative, “ said Peter Cardwell, a former special adviser to two Northern Ireland Secretaries in the U.K. government. “I can see circumstances in which a hardline DUP may go into next year’s Assembly election on an anti-Sinn Féin, anti-Protocol campaign.”

Ireland’s Prime Minister Micheal Martin met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the U.K. today, where they agreed on the importance of maintaining “smooth trade between Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland,” Downing Street said.

Poots, 55, has long been known as a hard line opponent of the protocol, even though as agriculture minister he is responsible for enforcing checks at Northern Ireland’s ports.

He’s drawn attention for expressing controversial views. He once told the BBC he believed the earth was about 6,000 years old and attempted to challenge a court ruling allowing gay and unmarried couples to adopt children, according to the broadcaster. Last year he said nationalist areas of Northern Ireland had about six times more coronavirus transmission than unionist areas.

Poots will be judged in the short term by what concessions he 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. He also won’t be directly involved in negotiations between the EU and U.K. on how it is implemented.

“We are listening to Unionist concerns, but we also have to listen to other concerns,” Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney told a webinar May 13. “We will do as much as we can to try to advocate for pragmatism and change, but we’ve got to do that within the confines of the protocol and the international agreement that’s there.”

The new leader also faces a growing clamor from nationalists who want to see a united Ireland. However, under the the Good Friday Agreement, the peace deal which largely ended violence in the region, a so-called border poll on unification could only take place if the U.K. government considers such a referendum would likely be passed.

“I will encourage all unionists to work with me to deliver an end, which ensures we set the foundations in this 2021 for another 100 years of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom,” Poots said.

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