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Brian Rowan: Poots can make promises on the protocol but it will be Boris' call

The former BBC correspondent and author says new DUP leader Edwin Poots’ hands may not be as strong on the big issues.

Brian Rowan

ALMOST A WEEK ago, a source watching the internal leadership play within the DUP thought out loudly about a tie – and the rules in the event of such an outcome.

He was explaining how “tight” this contest to succeed party leader Arlene Foster had become.

That it could come down to a vote either way – how 18-18 could become 19-17.

I published his thinking on the eamonnmallie.com website the following day – an assessment that was spot on.

A divided DUP

The race was between Stormont agriculture minister Edwin Poots and the party’s Westminster leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. Poots emerged the winner, but by the narrowest of margins. It was a photo finish.

He now leads a deeply divided party in one of those periods of broken politics in the North.

On the morning of the vote – Friday last – a different set of figures was floated from inside the Donaldson camp. The high number had him winning comfortably – the lower number by a margin of two.

Those numbers had been around for about 24 hours; with one source suggesting that Donaldson may well have “outfoxed” Poots. It was a misread of the party mood.

The BBC Political Editor in Northern Ireland Enda McClafferty had predicted an outcome that could create “a border down the middle of the DUP”. It turned out to be the perfect description of events.

Two borders now illustrate the brokenness of our politics. How the DUP was fractured in that leadership vote, and that post-Brexit Irish Sea border that has caused a tremor within the unionist/loyalist community.

Brexit, Stormont & The Union

In this centenary year, there are louder questions about the future of the Union, especially with Boris Johnson as UK Prime Minister. He is accused of betrayal – that sea border creating further difference and distance between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Poots – as well as the  new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party Doug Beattie – have to find some way out of the mess. Is there such a thing as getting rid of the sea border? How do you undo a deal negotiated by Johnson and the EU?

The big decisions will be taken at a higher level in politics. Poots and Beattie can make their arguments, but will Johnson listen? He is not good at that. Words and actions can be two very different things, especially with this Prime Minister.

In the fallout, a poison has once again seeped into our politics. The pandemic is what has kept the Stormont Executive together, but only just.

Are the old arguments about the Irish language and how to address the questions of the conflict years about to become new battles? Poots has been around long enough to know that Stormont only functions in a working relationship with Sinn Féin.

But he also knows the mood inside the Unionist/Loyalist community on that issue of the sea border.

Can Stormont – will Stormont – survive?

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It was given what should be its last chance in the New Decade-New Approach agreement of January 2020.

Yet, here we are again, a little over a year later, with Stormont again being walked to its very edge.

Brian Rowan is a journalist and author. He is a former BBC correspondent in Belfast. Brian is the author of several books on Northern Ireland’s peace process. His new book, “Political Purgatory – The Battle to Save Stormont and the Play for a New Ireland” is out now at Merrion Press.

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