Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has denied that he replaced Paul Frew as Economy Minister because the North Antrim MLA supported Edwin Poots in the DUP leadership contest.
Sir Jeffrey announced on Tuesday that East Antrim MLA Gordon Lyons would take over as Economy Minister, just weeks after Mr Frew was appointed to the role.
The DUP leader said he would carry out a more fundamental reshuffle of posts in September, and reiterated his desire to return to Stormont to take up the First Minister position “as soon as possible”.
In the meantime, Paul Givan will remain as First Minister.
Mr Frew is a close ally of Mr Poots and had been his campaign manager during the leadership election campaign in which he narrowly defeated Sir Jeffrey.
However, Mr Poots was forced to quit as leader after less than a month following an internal party revolt after he pressed ahead with reconstituting Stormont’s powersharing Executive alongside Sinn Fein, despite a significant majority of his MPs and MLAs being vociferously opposed to the move.
Last week, Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey was confirmed as his replacement as leader.
Speaking about his decision to replace Mr Frew, Sir Jeffrey said: “The economy is very important in Northern Ireland after the impact of the Covid pandemic; we want to move towards economic recovery.
“Gordon will make a good minister. Paul Frew worked very hard when he was in the department.
“I wanted to make some change, but recognising that we are now into the summer recess in the Assembly at Stormont, I will make further changes at the beginning of the new Assembly term in September.”
The DUP leader was asked if he made the switch because Mr Frew supported Edwin Poots in the leadership contest.
He said: “No, because I have retained Edwin as Minister for Agriculture, I have retained Paul Givan, who was a strong supporter of Edwin as the First Minister for the time being and I will continue to engage with colleagues over the summer period and make more substantive changes to my ministerial team and our Assembly team in the autumn.
“My objective is to bring the party together, I think that is already happening, to have a more united approach within the DUP because that is vital for good government in Northern Ireland.
“I will appoint the people that I believe are best suited to do the job in each department that we hold in the Executive.”
I plan to return to the Northern Ireland Assembly, to take up the position of First Minister, as soon as it is possible to do soSir Jeffrey Donaldson
Sir Jeffrey said he planned to return to Stormont because “a leader should lead from the front”.
He said: “I plan to return to the Northern Ireland Assembly, to take up the position of First Minister, as soon as it is possible to do so.
“I am not a member of the Assembly at the moment so a vacancy would have to arise which I could slot into or pending the May elections next year when I would plan to stand for an Assembly seat. So the sooner I can get back, the better.”
Internal divisions within the DUP have been laid bare in recent months after successive revolts deposed former leader Arlene Foster and her successor, Mr Poots.
Mr Poots’ departure came only weeks after he narrowly defeated Sir Jeffrey in the leadership contest to succeed Mrs Foster.