N Ireland's main unionist party picks traditionalist leader

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Democratic Unionist Party members Edwin Poots, left, is greeted by a supporter on the Belmont road after leaving the party headquarters in east Belfast after voting took place to elect a new leader on Friday May 14, 2021. Edwin Poots and Jeffrey Donaldson are running to replace Arlene Foster. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

LONDON – Northern Ireland’s largest British unionist party chose a religious conservative from the party's traditionalist wing as its new leader on Friday.

Edwin Poots, currently Northern Ireland's agriculture minister, won a two-person contest to lead the Democratic Unionist Party — the senior partner in the Catholic-Protestant power-sharing government in Belfast. He replaces Arlene Foster, who quit as leader and first minister last month amid recriminations over the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland.

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Poots vowed to unite the unionist movement in the face of the “massive challenge” brought by Brexit to Northern Ireland, the only part of the U.K. that shares a border with the European Union.

“This party has been the authentic voice of unionism and will continue to be the authentic voice of unionism under my leadership,” he said.

“I will be a leader in unionism who will be reaching out to other leaders in unionism. I want to see unionism working together.”

Poots defeated rival Jeffrey Donaldson by a slim 19-17 margin in a vote of the party’s eight lawmakers in the British Parliament and 28 Northern Ireland Assembly members.

He has said he will serve as party leader but will nominate someone else to be first minister.

Poots is a Christian fundamentalist and believer in creationism whose conservative views on social issues echo those of the DUP’s founder, the late Rev. Ian Paisley, but are far outside the U.K. political mainstream.

A party rooted in the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church, the DUP opposed Northern Ireland’s 1999 peace accord, but later became reconciled to it and agreed to share power with the Irish Republican Army-linked party Sinn Fein.

The power-sharing relationship has often been rocky, and the Belfast administration was suspended for almost three years from 2017 after it collapsed over a botched green energy project.

Britain’s economic split from the European Union at the end of 2020 has further shaken the political balance in Northern Ireland, a part of the U.K. where some people identify as British and some as Irish.

Post-Brexit trade rules have imposed customs and border checks on some goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. The arrangement was designed to avoid checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland, an EU member, because an open Irish border has helped underpin the peace process that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.

The new arrangements have angered Northern Ireland’s British unionists, who say the new checks amount to a border in the Irish Sea, weaken ties with the rest of the U.K. and could bolster calls for Irish reunification.

Tensions over the new rules were a contributing factor to a week of street violence in Northern Ireland cities last month that saw youths pelt police with bricks, fireworks and firebombs.

Foster faced the wrath of party members for backing the divorce agreement that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson struck with the EU. She quit amid a party push to oust her, saying she would remain as DUP leader until May 28 and as first minister until the end of June.

Foster also alienated sections of the conservative, Protestant party by taking a too-liberal stand on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion.

The DUP wants the U.K. government to rip up its divorce agreement with the EU. The bloc says that is impossible, and Johnson’s government says it is working to overcome teething problems in the new relationship.

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