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Edwin Poots and Nelson McCausland pay price as DUP announces shake-up

By Noel McAdam

Peter Robinson has dramatically sacked two of his most controversial Stormont ministers in a major shake-up of the DUP's front-line team.

The double departures of Health Minister Edwin Poots and Social Development chief Nelson McCausland caught Stormont, and their own party colleagues, by surprise.

In the face of increasing criticism from MLAs across other parties, Mr McCausland is being replaced by veteran backbencher Mervyn Storey as Social Development Minister.

And following months of speculation, Edwin Poots lost the health portfolio as the DUP leader kept a promise from several years ago to give Jim Wells the position.

The moves, just over six weeks before the party's annual conference, will re-assert Mr Robinson's authority in the party and attempt to head off any growing unrest over its leadership.

The changes also include relative party newcomer Michelle McIlveen, who had been chair of the Culture and Arts committee, taking over Mr Storey's role as chair of the education committee. And completing the package, Mr McCausland will take over from Ms McIlveen in chairing the Culture and Arts committee – his former ministerial position – while another long-serving MLA, William Irwin, will replace Paul Frew as chair of the Agriculture committee.

The DUP leader tweeted his intention to unveil a major reshuffle yesterday, and followed up with smiling photographs alongside his new ministers and committee chairs within minutes.

Although he had signalled he would make changes half-way through the current Assembly term, Mr Robinson seemed in recent months to have put any internal upheaval on the back burner.

But both Mr McCausland and Mr Poots had increasingly become controversial figures over recent months.

The party has twice had to invoke the controversial 'petition of concern' mechanism, requiring majorities of both unionists and nationalists, to protect Mr McCausland from possible censure. He has faced growing criticism after incorrectly 'naming and shaming' four firms in the Assembly and falsely alleging they had received overpayments amounting to £18m.

The Social Development Committee had also concluded Mr McCausland deliberately mislead MLAs over a meeting with another firm which had made donations to the party.

Mr Poots faced criticism over his refusal to lift a ban on gay men giving blood.

Then a remark in the Assembly that he could not expect a fair trial brought a stern rebuke from Northern Ireland's Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan who said it was detrimental to the rule of law and damaging to public confidence in the justice system.

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