MLA claims Sinn Fein could claim first minister role
The outgoing DUP leader Edwin Poots has spoken of being “publicly eviscerated” by the “big beasts” in his party after being forced to step down.
In a wide-ranging interview with the BBC Stephen Nolan show, Mr Poots also said Sinn Fein would likely take the first minister position if an election was called, but was confident any border poll would result in the status quo maintained. He said he was concerned that would spark a cycle of polls.
He also warned of a potential summer of disorder and “people will get hurt” if there was no change on the NI Protocol.
After just 21 days in charge Mr Poots announced he would be stepping down after he faced a party rebellion.
He said he was not given an opportunity in the role, as opposed to being seen as a “failed leader”. The veteran politician said it was never going to be easy for him as “most of the party officers” supported Sir Jeffrey.
"Had I had a little period of time and grace we could have turned around this situation quite quickly,” he said, repeating again he was promised a “significant win” on the protocol by the UK Government.
He also refused to say if he supported his party officers, but said he remained loyal to the DUP and would not be leaving it.
The Lagan Valley MLA said some of the reports in the papers of late around his downfall were “laughable,” however, when asked if a Belfast Telegraph report on Paul Givan being told to stand down as First Minister was incorrect, he responded: “I am not saying it is wrong.”
He said that he offered Sir Jeffrey Donaldson whatever role he wanted and that there was no difference in the pair’s policy.
"I’m feeling fine. Politics is a job and if you get a knock back on a job, on the bigger scale of things it is not that significant a blow.”
"Obviously I’m through my health issues last year...I had a diagnosis. I remember coming back from having the appendix surgery in early January and I bumped into my good friend and colleague Gordon Dunne who had good health.”
"He was asking how I was and I said ‘Gordon you’ve lost a good bit of weight yourself, are you alright?’
"That was the last day I saw Gordon in Stormont and he’s being buried today [Tuesday]. That’s just how sad...that situation is. So in relative terms this is a setback but it’s not a setback that one should allow to really knock themselves back because there’s lots of other opportunities in life."
Mr Poots said he took the risk of nominating a first minister without apparent party support in the belief that the UK Government was starting to take unionist opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol seriously.
Although he said reports of the size of the backlash against him had been exaggerated and he had the support of many in his party.
He said risking the collapse of the Assembly would have denied the chance to “continue that battle”.
"Leadership’s about taking risks, I took a risk to run for leadership and I took a risk maybe to take on some of the big beasts in doing that,” he said.
"And then obviously some of the big beasts decided to have another go in that circumstance.”
On whether this meant Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had sensed another chance to gain the party leadership, he said: "I said (big beasts) as plural. I’ll leave people to draw their own conclusions. They know who supported me and who were against me….that’s just life. They have chosen to move against me and I decided that I would step back.”
Later in the interview, Mr Poots appeared to contradict his previous position of not wishing to collapse the Assembly over the Northern Ireland protocol.
He said it was made clear to DUP party officers that if progress had not been made on the protocol during July he would have considered pulling out the first minister and that there was little difference in Sir Jeffrey’s position.
Mr Poots said the government had indicated there would be “a significant win” surrounding issues of the Northern Ireland protocol by early July, but the detail was still being worked on.
He described a conversation with Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, on the Thursday before the DUP meeting as of “limited benefit”.
"Ultimately the pressure came on for me to step down thereafter at the officers’ meeting...from Jeffrey and others.”
He added that Sir Jeffrey had made his opinion of Mr Poots “less vociferously than others”.
"If I have lost my leadership but have taken the steps which will ensure that we get a result in the protocol...then that’s been worth doing and that’s worth the sacrifice that I have made.”
On the moment he was told to go, Mr Poots said he took the decision to step down before he was pushed and a vote of no confidence was held.
On the issue of demands for a border poll, Mr Poots said he was convinced that unionism would win such a vote easily.
"Once you start that process...you would just get the demand for further border polls and then further instability in the intervening periods and that's not good for the community.”
If an Assembly election was held this Autumn, he admitted that it was likely Sinn Fein could return a First Minister.
“The unionist community is pretty disenchanted with politics and has been for some months now. Therefore getting the significant win on the protocol is necessary to turn that situation around.
"I think if there’s an election today, thankfully there isn’t, it wouldn’t be a good election for unionism...They (Sinn Fein) probably would have the largest number of votes and seats as things stand.”
Discussing meetings between the DUP and the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), who represent several paramilitaries, Mr Poots said he had no shame in doing so.
He denied the LCC or threats from the UDA had any sway over the DUP leadership elections.
Reflecting on loyalist protests earlier this year, Mr Poots said he believed the majority if those involved were young loyalists that were not connected with paramilitaries.
“I fear that if things don’t change over the course of the summer time that perhaps some older people who are involved in paramilitaries will get involved.
"That’s my fear, that if we do not solve things politically the street politics will become the focus. And street politics has the potential to lead to politics and therefore it is incumbent upon us to ensure that politics works.
"And a failure of politics has the potential for a significant problem in our community which could lead to people being hurt and we should really try to avoid that.”
He agreed this meant there was a potential for paramilitaries to engage in serious premeditated violence.
He said losing his role as DUP leader had been harder on his family.
"My son knew, he heard it in the news probably before I got home. My wife was out with friends, so I rung her up and told her so she was a bit shocked.
"She’s deeply hurt for me when you see someone that you love being hurt, then you hurt more. I can cope with it much better than family.
"Essentially I was publicly eviscerated on the Thursday and that is very hard for anybody who cares about you if they see that and are aware of it.
“She doesn’t watch much news or television nowadays because of the nature of reporting and all of that negativity.”
Comparing his experience to how Arlene Foster was made to stand down, he said: "I knew that it was harsh and cruel but nonetheless there was a coming together of opinions on that issue and it led to that circumstance.”
He added: “I’m sorry for the pain that she endured as a consequence of being removed as party leader and my wish and my desire is that it could have been done in a different way.
"I still don’t know if that was possible. I’m probably of the opinion that it wasn’t possible.”
On Mrs Foster tweeting about enjoying a peaceful lunch as the DUP imploded, he said: "That’s entirely up to her. As I indicated I’m not a grudge bearer and politics is politics...a rough and tumble game and if you’re not capable of taking the knocks you shouldn’t be in it.
"I am of the view that there are far more important things in life, therefore you take your knocks in politics and you pick yourself up and you move one.”
Earlier on Good Morning Ulster, Sinn Fein MP Chris Hazzard said he was hopeful Sinn Fein can work with Sir Jeffrey Donaldson as DUP leader.
"I hope so. I think people have looked in on the chaos within the DUP in the last number of weeks and have been completely dismayed,” he said.
Mr Hazzard added that it was now time for the DUP to “dial down the rhetoric” and respect the power sharing institutions.
"Agreements made must be delivered upon, it’s the same in every walk of life. It should be the same for Stormont power sharing institution at Stormont as well.”