The new leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) pledged to unite the bickering strands of unionism to fight the Brexit deal and lay the foundations for keeping the province in the United Kingdom.
Edwin Poots, seen by some commentators as more aggressive in his opposition to Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade barriers and more conservative on social issues than his opponent, Jeffrey Donaldson, was narrowly elected leader of the region’s largest party on Friday.
Northern Ireland’s agriculture minister takes over at a time of instability in the British province and unionist anger over the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol that installed a customs border with the rest of the United Kingdom.
“The Northern Ireland protocol has proven to be a massive challenge for us and if we are to fight this, then it is for us to do that together,” Poots, a young Earth creationist who rejects the theory of evolution, said after being elected.
“This party has been the authentic voice of unionism and will continue to be the authentic voice of unionism under my leadership.”
The protocol leaves Northern Ireland within the EU’s trading sphere, avoiding a hard border on the island with EU-member Ireland but infuriating pro-British unionists by undermining the region’s place in the UK.
It was partly blamed for recent rioting by young pro-British loyalists. A legal challenge against the arrangements partly launched by the DUP began on Friday.
British and EU negotiators have said they will seek in the coming weeks to smooth the disruption to trade in everyday goods such as cheese originating in Britain. The DUP wants the protocol scrapped altogether.
“It’s all a bit of a fantasy contest in terms of the protocol really because it’s not in the DUP’s gift to get rid of it,” said University of Liverpool politics professor Jon Tonge, describing the election as the DUP “reconnecting with its past”.
Poots has said he plans to nominate another party member to replace Arlene Foster as Northern Ireland’s first minister and split the roles of party and devolved government leader.
He is one of a number of DUP ministers who have protested against the Brexit arrangements by refusing to attend meetings with Irish counterparts established under the 1998 peace deal that ended 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland.
That has strained relations with Irish nationalist rivals Sinn Fein, with whom it leads Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government.