Nigel Dodds tops poll of delegates in race to succeed Peter Robinson as DUP leader
Nigel Dodds is the overwhelming favourite among DUP rank-and-file members to become party leader when Peter Robinson steps aside.
A poll carried out by the Belfast Telegraph at the party's annual conference also showed strong support for Arlene Foster.
But the results will have dealt a blow to east Antrim MP Sammy Wilson, who polled only 6% support among activists as a potential leader. By contrast, Mr Dodds received the backing of 50% and Arlene Foster 34%.
No other party members received any votes from the 50 delegates attending the conference who were questioned.
The result will fuel speculation of a "dream team" arrangement with Ms Foster appointed First Minister at Stormont leaving Mr Dodds to lead the party from Westminster.
The conclusion of the DUP conference at the La Mon Hotel was overshadowed by criticism over comments made by Gregory Campbell.
The East Londonderry MP told delegates the DUP would treat Sinn Fein's "entire wish list" as no more than toilet paper. He said that included calls for an Irish language act
Mr Wilson's score in the Belfast Telegraph survey comes as a surprise as he was being tipped as a possible new leader as recently as last month. Mr Dodds, a Free Presbyterian and Orangeman, will be seen as somewhat more to the religious right of the party than Mr Robinson, Mr Wilson and Ms Foster. However, he is popular on all wings of the party.
Ms Foster has already acted as First Minister when Mr Robinson stepped down for a period in 2010. She is a former member of the UUP and belongs to the Church of Ireland so she may appeal to other wings of the party.
If Mr Dodds takes over, the Dodds family would replace the Robinsons or the Paisleys as the most powerful dynasty in the DUP. Mr Dodds' wife Diane is the DUP's MEP, who increased her vote by 40,000 last year.
At the same time there was overwhelming support for Mr Robinson. Some 90% believed he should lead the DUP into the 2016 Assembly election. However, the speculation is that Mr Robinson may resign sometime after the Westminster election next May, if the party does well in it.
There was strong support for unionist pacts in next year's elections. More than 200 people, including Mr Robinson and Ms Foster, voted in a separate poll run by LucidTalk, our polling partners. Of these 92.5% wanted pacts with other unionist parties to ensure the election of the maximum number of unionist representatives in Westminster next year - 35% wanted pacts with the UUP alone while 11% would include the TUV as well and 46.5% would involve all unionist parties.
East Belfast, the seat lost by Mr Robinson to Naomi Long of Alliance last time, was favoured by 27% for a pact. Smaller numbers wanted a pact in Mr Dodds's North Belfast seat (16%), South Belfast (13%) and Upper Bann (11%). There was considerable enthusiasm for remaining in government. Some 90% of delegates felt that the DUP should remain in government with Sinn Fein even if the UUP pulled out. An even higher proportion, 96%, felt Northern Ireland had become a better place to live in the last five years. Most who gave a reason mentioned job creation and many also said the security situation had improved.
The PSNI themselves got a reasonably high approval rating. The overall rating was +46. This compares to +22 at last week's SDLP conference. At the extremes 8% rated police performance as excellent while 2% regarded it as terrible.
There were some signs of more liberal thinking on abortion and gay marriage than is heard from DUP spokespeople. Only half of delegates favoured retaining our lifetime ban on gay men giving blood while 38% were opposed. "I needed a blood transfusion myself and I wasn't asking who it came from, that altered my view," one delegate said. Some 22% were in favour of some relaxation of strict laws to make abortions easier to obtain while 6% were opposed and by far the largest group, 72%, did not offer an opinion.
How DUP party members responded to our survey
Q: If the UUP withdrew from the Executive would the DUP stay on in government with Sinn Fein?
Yes 90%; No 6%; Don't knowK 4%
Q: Should Northern Ireland's lifetime ban on gay men giving blood be maintained?
Yes 50%; No 38%; Don't know 12%
Q: Should Peter Robinson lead the DUP into the 2016 Assembly election?
Yes 90%; No 8%; Don't know 2%
Q: How on a scale of 1-5 with 1 best would you rate the performance of the PSNI?
1. 8%; 2. 46%; 3. 40%; 4. 4%; 5. 2%
Q: Do you think Northern Ireland has improved as a place to live in the last five years - or got worse? (yes - better, no - worse, O - the same or don't know)
Yes 96%; No 2%; Don't know 2%
Q: Should Northern Ireland's abortion laws be (yes) relaxed to make it easier to obtain an abortion here, (no) made more restrictive or (O) kept the way they are.
Yes 22%; No 6%; Don't know 72%
Q: Thinking of schools you or your family have attended most recently, should the churches have more (yes) or less role (no) in the running of our education system?
Yes 24%; No 46%; Don't know 30%
Q: If Peter Robinson stepped down as the leader of the DUP who would you pick to succeed him as party leader?
Nigel Dodds 50%; Sammy Wilson 6%; Arlene Foster 34%; Someone else 0%; Don't know 10%
The survey of 50 party members was carried out last Friday at the DUP conference in association with LucidTalk polling. Interviews were conducted by Samantha Robb who is studying Journalism at Belfast Met.