Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Could Edwin Poots be the DUP leader to get a deal over the line? (Yes, that Edwin Poots)

Pandering to the extremes worked before. Sort of. Could it do so again, asks Eilis O'Hanlon

Edwin Poots of the DUP
Edwin Poots of the DUP
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

It's traditional for party leaders to stand down after a bad election. Arlene Foster shows absolutely no sign of doing so despite presiding over the worst DUP result in years. That hasn't stopped mutterings of discontent from breaking out in the ranks.

The problem for Arlene's potential rivals is that they haven't exactly covered themselves with glory either. Nigel Dodds was the architect of the DUP's disastrous Brexit strategy, which managed in the end to alienate just about everybody, friend and foe alike. That's not much of a place from which to launch a bid for the crown.

Besides, it seems that he sees his immediate future in the House of Lords rather than Stormont.

Jeffrey Donaldson's name keeps coming up, but he can't lead the DUP from the back benches of the House of Commons either. Others lack experience and name recognition.

That might explain the latest rumour doing the rounds - that Edwin Poots may be poised to take her place. No, you're not hallucinating. That Edwin Poots.

It could be that someone simply drew the Lagan Valley MLA's name in the office sweepstake for next DUP leader and is trying to give his rank outsider the best chance of sneaking through to victory on the inside.

But assuming that a Poots leadership is a genuine conversation topic in DUP circles at the moment, it's worth looking at why the idea might be gaining ground.

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The thinking behind it seems to be that it takes a hardliner to bring other hardliners along, and that he may be the best candidate to persuade the Orange faction in the DUP of the need to step back from the brink and finally resign themselves to the compromises needed to avoid a border poll.

This seems hopelessly optimistic. Hardliners would surely expect Poots to be their man, not immediately betray them in order to snuggle up to Sinn Fein at Stormont. Such dissembling would also seem to go against his reputation as a straight-talker.

Difficult as it is to believe sometimes, not everything in Northern Ireland is about the big constitutional questions either.

Conor Murphy
Conor Murphy

Social issues such as increased acceptance of a diversity of sexual identities are more important to many young people than traditional issues.

Older voters may be bewildered that rainbow flags are suddenly more important than national ones, but the survival of the Union is in those younger voters' hands. They can't be ignored.

At some point the DUP is going to have to tackle the contradiction between the wishes of its evangelical base and those of more liberal Protestants who may vote DUP because they want a strong voice for unionism, but who don't warm to the fire and brimstone stuff.

It's difficult to see how Edwin Poots, a man who recoils from many aspects of modern life in the same way that Dracula does from the smell of garlic, could possibly give more socially liberal unionists a comfortable feeling about voting DUP.

But there are precedents. The original idea behind the Belfast Agreement was to strengthen the centre and then build the peace process outwards as the Ulster Unionists and SDLP reaped the electoral rewards. It didn't work out that way.

Only later, once the Executive had run into trouble a few times, did the emphasis switch to replacing the parties of the centre with the DUP and Sinn Fein on the grounds that giving extremists control of the process would provide them with an incentive to stop wrecking it.

That line was pushed aggressively by a giddy Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin, and the Brits went along with it on the basis that anything had to be worth a try, right?

It even worked for a while. Sort of. The centre crumbled, but the Executive held. Eventually faith in the Executive fell away too, until a series of crises, some real, some manufactured by parties for short-term gain, finally brought it to its knees.

So could it work again? That seems to be the thinking behind a Poots-led DUP. That Sinn Fein is also set to give former IRA man Conor Murphy a bigger role in any reformed Assembly has been singled out by some commentators as additional evidence that the centrists and reformers in both main parties are on the back foot, ripe for a takeover.

If so, it would seem to ignore the real outcome of this previous exercise in political game theory, which is that, ultimately, it created a more divisive and bad-tempered political atmosphere.

Why wouldn't the same thing happen again, to the further detriment of reconciliation and stability?

It could be that agreeing a new deal which gives Sinn Fein most of what they want with regard to the Irish language, but which is vague enough for the DUP to claim it's not a stand-alone act, will save Arlene Foster's skin for the time being. But is she in a strong enough position after recent disasters to get such a deal across the line?

Amid a blizzard of spin, UUP leader Steve Aiken was probably most honest on Friday when, asked about the progress of talks, he admitted: "Quite frankly, I don't know where we are."

The only certainty is that if the Ulster Unionists and other parties of the centre show anything less than full-throated enthusiasm for returning to Stormont then they will be ceding that space to the extremists by default.

If recent elections have proven anything, it's that there is now an appetite for the middle ground. Alliance now represents one in five voters, and the SDLP is showing at last that it's not a total pushover for Sinn Fein.

Returning to a policy of strengthening the hardliners in the hope that they can be bought off a second time feels like a regressive step at a time when there may be a small chance of doing things differently.

It just feels like a grim omen that this has to be said again, years after the lesson should have been learned.

The UUP, SDLP and Alliance need to robustly defend their own demands at the talks to stop negotiations becoming another episode in the DUP/Sinn Fein show. That in turn would give voters in the next Assembly election the confidence to think outside the broken duopoly.

Carving out a space for those written off too often as "others" will be a long journey, but getting there from another experiment in pandering to the extremes will be even longer and more arduous.

Recent results at the ballot box have made a chink in the armour. It needs to be prised open, rather than sealed up again hurriedly to pander to the DUP and Sinn Fein's narcissistic desire to make everything all about them.

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