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One of these men will today be elected DUP leader, here's what they want and how the voting takes place

It’s the first leadership election in the party’s history.

The two leadership contenders.
The two leadership contenders.
Image: PA Images

THE DUP WILL take the unprecedented step today of electing a new leader. 

The move is quite literally unprecedented because the person who becomes the fourth leader in the party’s 50-year history will be the first to be elected. 

Ian Paisley Sr. was the founder and first leader of the party, with successors Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster essentially taking over after they faced no opposition. 

Foster’s departure has led to much debate about the future direction of the largest party in unionism, with two men vying to take over: Edwin Poots MLA and Jeffrey Donaldson MP. 

The choice between Poots and Donaldson will be made by party members elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLAs) and House of Commons (MPs). 

That means 28 MLAs and eight MPs, making an electorate of 36. The vote will take place  by way of a secret ballot. 

The whole process is being overseen by DUP party chair and House of Lords Peer Maurice Morrow. 

The online meeting is set to begin at 11am when each candidate will be given 10 minutes to speak. An online voting system will then allow the members to cast their ballots with an announcement expected at about 5pm. 

Outlining the process last week, Morrow said the winner will then be ratified by a meeting of the DUP’s Central Executive Committee. 

“The Party Officers intend to make arrangements for a full meeting of the Central Executive Committee to ratify and thereby complete the election process as quickly as possible,” Morrow said. 

The issues

There have been no public leadership hustings as part of the contest but both candidates have circulated a manifesto to their voting colleagues of what they hope to achieve.

Generally speaking, Donaldson’s pitch is being seen as the more moderate of the two candidates, with the belief that electing him may appeal more to voters who may be considering defecting to the UUP or perhaps the Alliance Party. 

Poots is hitching his bid to more traditional and hardline unionist voters.  

dup-leadership DUP MP for Lagan Valley Jeffrey Donaldson. Source: PA Images

In a statement confirming his leadership bid, Donaldson said he wants to “build a shared future for Northern Ireland where everyone, regardless of their background, has a part to play”. 

His manifesto says he would shake-up DUP party rules and to allow for more inclusive decision-making on policies.

Donaldson has pledged to consult on the potential of having two deputy leaders going forward – one based at Stormont and the other at Westminster. 

If elected, he says he will embark on a “listening tour” of Northern Ireland during the summer to enable the party to reconnect with members and voters.

Donaldson has said he will develop a proactive communications strategy to build the party base and connect with “core concerns of voters”. This would be particularly focused on social media, the document states. 

On the opposing side, Poots has vowed to establish a “unionist convention” to maximise support for the pro-Union position and unionist representation in next year’s Assembly elections. 

pga-europro-tour-event-bangor Foster will step down as DUP leader on 28 May and as First Minister at the end of next month. Source: PA Images

Poots says he would set up a pro-Union think tank involving academics and business figures and also a pro-Union foundation to support projects designed to strengthen the Union.

He said he would also work to build international outreach to explain the unionist cause in London, Brussels and North America.

Poots has also said he would split the roles of party leader and Stormont first minister, with the same person not being allowed to hold both roles. 

This would mean he would not be NI First Minister, would not have to work as closely with the Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister and could give him a freer hand to focus on the party grassroots 

As he is not an MLA, Donaldson would also have to select someone else to be First Minister unless he stepped down as an MP and was co-opted into the Assembly. 

Yesterday, Donaldson told those voting that he “intends to fight the next Assembly election” and that he would “take on the role of First Minister as I believe that our people not only want a leader of unionism, they want a leader for Northern Ireland.”

Who is likely to win? 

Before Donaldson entered the race, Poots’ campaign manager had claimed that his candidate had already been assured of the support to win. 

Paul Frew tweeted that “Edwin has received endorsements from a majority of the electoral college including MLAs and MPs”. 

The tweet was either an effort to influence voters before Donaldson threw his hat into the ring, or it was a genuine statement of where the race was two weeks ago. 

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The bookies see it differently, with Donaldson a healthy favourite over Poots.

This, however, may be more reflective of wider name recognition as clearly those setting odds have little insight into the minds of DUP representatives. 

edwin-poots-cancer-diagnosis Stormont Agriculture minister Edwin Poots. Source: PA Images

Yesterday, the race was given a jolt when an unnamed member of Donaldson’s team told BBC’s Stephen Nolan programme that Donaldson would consider cutting off North-South co-operation and collapsing the Stormont Assembly if unionist issues with the Northern Ireland protocol were not addressed. 

Both candidates have placed opposition to the protocol as a key point as part of their pledge. 

Nationalists and the Alliance Party have described such a threat to bring down Stormont as “childish” and “foolish” but the fact that Donaldson did not say it publicly gives the candidate a degree of deniability over both the threat and whether he would follow through with it. 

Tweeting yesterday, Belfast News Letter journalist Sam McBride suggested that such a threat can be classified as “spin” but may suggest that Donaldson’s team is worried. 

“He has been running as the more moderate candidate, able to appeal to voters leaving the DUP to Alliance – if he was cruising to victory, I doubt he’d want to be going down this route, even on a deniable basis,” McBride said.

- With reporting by Press Association 

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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