A year on – how has the DUP fared since the Edwin Poots resignation that threw the party into turmoil?
It was one of the most explosive days in local politics. After just three weeks as leader of the DUP, Edwin Poots resigned, throwing the party into turmoil.
utside DUP HQ, the political press pack gathered around the weather-beaten door of the Dundela Avenue building waiting patiently on the latest development in the party’s seemingly never-ending drama.
Poots emerged from the building after a “robust” meeting with the party officers stony-faced, his dream of leading the party his father helped found having ended abruptly after just 21 days.
On what was arguably the worst day of Poots’ political life, Arlene Foster, the woman he replaced as leader in a ruthless coup, was having a very different day.
Mrs Foster tweeted: “Just had a lovely lunch at Deanes with a good friend. It’s great having hospitality open again. Hope everyone is having a great day this lovely sunny afternoon #ProudofNI”.
Revenge it seems was best served over a cold glass of Sauvignon Blanc.
His downfall? Going against the vast majority of MLAs and MPs who wanted to hold off on reconstituting the Executive before a formal vote could be taken.
In the days previous, Poots had told Radio Ulster that he was “fully committed” to fulfilling all aspects of the New Decade New Approach deal, including Irish Language provision, to the anger of many within the party.
When he nominated his Lagan Valley mate MLA Paul Givan as First Minister without party approval, his fate was sealed.
One year on from the day of the DUP meltdown, what has been the fallout from the chaos for the party which until 2021 only had three leaders since its formation, then three in the space of a month?
Mrs Foster — now Dame Arlene — dropped out of electoral politics following the leadership challenge. An activist since her university years, some wondered how the Fermanagh woman would cope away from the cut and thrust of the debating chamber.
However, she has thrived in her new environment, landing a gig hosting her own show on GB News.
It is a role she seems to relish, and she appears more relaxed away from the pressure of party politics, although that does not mean her time in the DUP does not still cast a shadow.
She still has her allies in the party, which remains deeply divided.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was installed as leader within days of Poots’ resignation.
However, his path to top spot was via the scenic route. While there was a majority that wanted a leadership change, they considered the Lagan Valley MP as the status quo, too close to the thinking of Dame Arlene.
According to one insider, it was only when the party officers realised “they’d been sold a pup” in Poots that they realised Donaldson would be the safer alternative — but he will always be the second choice.
He also took over a party that was deeply fractured. With two very defined camps, he is totally at the mercy of the party officers.
“Never in the history of the DUP have the party officers had so much power,” said one insider.
“In the past, the leader would have told the party officers what the next move would be, and they would fall in behind and support him or her. Now Jeffrey has to ask permission and they tell him what the next move is”.
This makes Donaldson hamstrung when it comes to making major policy decisions, including when the DUP will nominate a speaker or return to the Executive.
It was noted on a number of occasions how uncomfortable the Lagan Valley MP looked at the anti-protocol rallies he attended in the run up to the election.
Previously considered a moderate in DUP terms, a moderniser, someone who was a good negotiator, he is now a leader who is beholden to the party officers for his very survival, which has pushed him towards the hardliners.
Among the party officers, there are those who remain supportive of Poots: the Free Presbyterian wing of the party, the Paisleyites who want to keep the DUP loyal to its roots — traditional, fundamentalist, a political party with a religious ethos.
Unlike Foster, Edwin Poots refused to allow rejection to force him from the party. Currently MLA for South Belfast, he is down but not out.
Then there are those loyal to Sir Jeffrey who want to modernise and future proof the party.
But there is also a third group, ‘the floaters’ — people who can be swayed by policy rather than person. They currently hold the balance of power, and they could determine any future move against the DUP leader.
And that will remain a problem for Donaldson until he can break that cycle.
He has two options, either win over the majority of party officers and therefore secure not just his leadership, but his ability to make independent decisions.
Or he wins over the party membership, wins the trust of the DUP faithful, makes himself indispensable and therefore forces the party officers to accept and support his leadership.
Disastrous polling was to a degree turned around — the DUP is no longer the largest party, but it did not suffer the sweeping losses predicted at the recent Assembly election.
It has also seen off any challenge from Jim Allister.
The protocol legislation, set to be introduced by Liz Truss, covers almost all of the DUP demands and could be sold as a success of Sir Donaldson ’ s leadership and influence at Westminster.
But the party still needs to cross the hurdle of nominating a Deputy First Minister to serve alongside a Sinn Fein First Minister, something it refused to comment on during the election campaign.
Donaldson is a leader in name, but he does not wield the power of the party big hitters, former leaders Dr Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson.
He is a leader constantly looking over his shoulder, always aware that one slip up could bring his leadership to a crashing end.