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 Poots’ non-attendance at the north-south meeting with Irish Agriculture minister Charlie McConalogue comes amid recent uncertainty about the DUP’s strategy in respect of north-south engagement.
Poots’ non-attendance at the north-south meeting with Irish Agriculture minister Charlie McConalogue comes amid recent uncertainty about the DUP’s strategy in respect of north-south engagement.
Image: PA

Potential DUP leadership contender pulls out of North-South meeting

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said he hopes the meeting can go ahead.
Apr 28th 2021, 2:41 PM 14,808 20

A DUP MINISTER viewed as a potential successor to Arlene Foster has pulled out of a scheduled North-South meeting with his Irish Government counterpart, Charlie McConalogue.

The move by Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots, who is believed to be more hardline than Arlene Foster, comes amid calls from some sections of unionism for the DUP to end participation in cross-border political structures while Brexit’s Irish Sea border remains in place.

Internal critics of Foster, many of whom have signed a letter of no confidence in her leadership, are pressing for the party to adopt a more robust approach in opposing the Northern Ireland Protocol, which governs the new post-Brexit trading arrangements.

In that context, some are interpreting Poots’ no-show as a signal of intent amid the escalating leadership crisis in the DUP.

McConalogue said he is disappointed the scheduled North/South Ministerial Council meeting did not take place, stating that engagement is crucial to strengthening North South ties.

Speaking on RTE’s News At One, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said he hopes that North/South Ministerial Council meetings go ahead, adding that the council itself is an “essential pillar” to the Good Friday Agreement.

“Many people agreed to change the constitution in Ireland and a huge majority voted for the Good Friday Agreement on the basis of guarantees that there would be structured dialogue and partnership North South on this island, and so that is why the North South Ministerial Council isn’t a minor issue. It is very much central to the institutions that allowed the Good Friday Agreement to work,” he said.

Meanwhile, Foster’s future as DUP leader and Stormont First Minister hangs in the balance after party colleagues mounted a heave against her.

It is understood a significant number of DUP politicians have signed a letter of no confidence in Mrs Foster that was circulated among party MLAs, MPs and peers.

If those numbers are confirmed and subsequently replicated in any future leadership contest – a vote confined to MPs and MLAs – her five-and-a-half year tenure as leader would be set to end.

It remains unclear whether Foster would contest a leadership vote if one is triggered.

There is some speculation that if Foster does depart, the twin roles she currently occupies could be spilt going forward, with one politician taking on the role of party leader and another being appointed First Minister.

On Tuesday afternoon, she attempted to downplay the scale of the internal revolt, which comes amid mounting discontent among party faithful over her leadership.

“Stories on leadership come up from time to time, and it’s one of those times,” she said.

However, in an indication of the rapidly developing situation, Foster cancelled a scheduled meeting with Secretary of State Brandon Lewis and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill on Tuesday evening.

In a statement, the DUP insisted questions over Foster’s future were an internal matter.

The party said its democratic electoral processes were for its members, and declined to offer further comment.

There has been growing unease among DUP members about Mrs Foster and the wider party leadership in recent months.

The primary source of concern is the handling of the Brexit process. The DUP is facing anger from the wider loyalist and unionist community for the introduction of an Irish Sea border.

Critics have accused Foster of failing to use the party’s influence at Westminster – particularly during its confidence and supply deal with the Conservatives – to secure a Brexit deal that saw Northern Ireland leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK.

She has also been accused of not being vociferous enough in opposition to the contentious Protocol, which governs the new Brexit trading barriers between NI and GB, ahead of its introduction at the start of 2021.

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Poor recent polling numbers have exacerbated the discontent within the party faithful, who are mindful of next May’s looming Assembly election.

Poots’ non-attendance at the north-south meeting with Irish Agriculture minister Charlie McConalogue comes amid recent uncertainty about the DUP’s strategy in respect of north-south engagement.

The DUP has failed to turn up for two previous meetings in recent weeks, but last week DUP Economy Minister Diane Dodds did participate in a planned economic development meeting with Tanaiste Leo Varadkar.

While Foster has insisted north-south cooperation will be impacted as part of her strategy to undermine the Protocol, she has made clear her ministers will fulfil their obligations to attend north-south ministerial council meetings that are unrelated to the Brexit dispute.

Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill criticised Poots.

“Today’s scheduled meeting of ministers North/South on rural development and agriculture was cancelled as no DUP Minister would attend,” she tweeted.

“The North/South dimension is central to the Good Friday Agreement & there is no alternative. Put simply these hare-brained antics are juvenile.”

Aside from the Irish Sea border, Foster’s decision to abstain in a vote on gay conversion therapy last week appears to have further agitated sections of the party’s fundamentalist grassroots.

On Tuesday morning, the Belfast News Letter reported that several DUP constituency associations had written letters expressing concern at Foster’s abstention on a motion that called for a ban on gay conversion therapy but did not incorporate a specific mention of protections for religious practices.

The majority of her party Assembly colleagues voted against the motion, having failed to amend it to include reference to religious protections.

Foster was among only five party members, including fellow Stormont Executive ministers Peter Weir and Mrs Dodds, who abstained.

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