Belfast Telegraph

Edwin Poots' attack on father figure Peter Robinson has badly misfired

By Noel McAdam

The DUP likes to characterise itself as a "family". But everyone knows how dysfunctional families can be. In such terms, Edwin Poots came across yesterday as the churlish, angry adolescent.

If his aim was to wound the father figure/party leader who had just removed him as health minister, it badly misfired.

His decision to go on the Stephen Nolan Show, even though the programme already included Sammy Wilson, was widely interpreted as an attempt to leave Peter Robinson as a lame duck leader.

Poots is a wily political animal who will not have made comments on the air by mistake. They are more slip-out than slip-up.

Since he stopped short of giving Mr Robinson his unqualified support several weeks ago – along with North Antrim MP Ian Paisley – and then went on a solo run over health funding while the leader was on holiday, the impression is that Mr Poots is no longer seen as a team player.

He knew what he was doing when he said Mr Robinson intended to stand down within months. He claimed it was "public knowledge", quoting an interview in this newspaper earlier this month in which the First Minister refused to be drawn on the timetable for his departure.

Mr Robinson's response yesterday was terse, the language dismissive, even disdainful, and it seemed designed to further isolate Mr Poots and his supporters.

"Neither now, nor before the Assembly election, have I any plans to stand down," the First Minister said.

Clearly chiding Mr Poots, he added: "When I decide such a moment has arrived, I will be the one to make the announcement." In other words: "Not you, Edwin – or anyone else".

The two men are not at daggers drawn. But they are thought to have significant differences going back to the early development of the Maze site and including the party's handling of Lisburn councillor Jenny Palmer, who has been waiting for an apology for a year.

Mr Poots belongs to the old Paisleyite, fundamentalist wing of the party, and inner tensions have resurfaced with the death of Lord Bannside, who had fallen out with Mr Robinson. Nevertheless, Mr Poots was incorrect in claiming Mr Robinson had made his intentions explicit in this newspaper. In fact, the First Minister laughed off predictions he would retire in the near future to take a seat in the House of Lords.

This was coupled with his initiative, launched through this newspaper, to secure "St Andrews-style" talks on improving the system of governance at Stormont.

Mr Robinson will want to ensure his party enters any such negotiations on a united front.

In DUP terms, progress on the key problems – with the impasse on welfare reform the most urgent – requires movement from other parties and the Government.

If the in-limbo issues such as flags, parading and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles are added in, no one in the party will want their opponents to be able to call into question the DUP's ability to deliver.

The ghost of David Trimble and a crumbling Ulster Unionist Party always loom large over Peter Robinson's shoulder. Even the new Health Minister Jim Wells pointed out that leaders make enemies during reshuffles, but there does not appear to be sufficient momentum within the party for an early move against Robinson.

It is intriguing, however, that some of those perceived as being close to Mr Poots were removed from committee chairs in the latest Robinson shake-up.

There has been speculation that Mr Poots had suggested any forthcoming negotiations should not include the Haass subjects of parading, flags and the past, and that the Irish Government should not be directly involved.

Paul Givan, who until Tuesday had chaired the Justice Committee, and Paul Frew, chair of the Agriculture Committee, were said to have backed the proposal.

While he may have been sanguine about his own fate, it is likely Mr Poots was irked by the demotion of his ex-special adviser Mr Givan. Ironically, he gave a quote to this newspaper recently, quipping "Poots stays put". Not for long, as it turned out.

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