By David Young, PA
DUP leadership contender Edwin Poots has vowed to end a party culture of policy-making “on the hoof”, in a series of proposed internal reforms.
The North’s agriculture minister said a recent approach by the DUP hierarchy of paying little regard to the views of elected representatives could not continue.
His pledge to make policy-making more participatory was included in a “manifesto for reform” he circulated to the members of the DUP’s electoral college on Monday.
The party’s 28 MLAs and eight MPs will decided whether Mr Poots or leadership rival Jeffrey Donaldson succeeds the deposed Arlene Foster in a vote, by secret ballot, on Friday.
With disquiet about how the party is run among key concerns of many of those involved in the internal heave against Mrs Foster, both candidates have placed a focus on how they would change DUP structures and processes.
We can no longer sustain the ad hoc approach that has been a feature of recent years, with policy on the hoof and little regard to the wishes of the elected members who have to believe in and defend the policies of the party
In his five-page document, Mr Poots pledges “real and meaningful” changes he said will put decision-making back into the hands of elected representatives.
Among the proposals is the establishment of a strategic policy body to “deliver the leadership and policy ambitions of the party”.
“We can no longer sustain the ad hoc approach that has been a feature of recent years, with policy on the hoof and little regard to the wishes of the elected members who have to believe in and defend the policies of the party,” he wrote.
He said the body would be chaired jointly by the leader and deputy leader, and would act as a “vehicle for engagement” to enable elected members to participate in the process of formulating policy.
In his manifesto, Mr Poots wrote: “It is clear reform of our party is needed and my agenda for change has resonated with you.
Unionism is at a defining moment and my plan will strengthen the Union for everyone. I want to reach out to the next leader of the UUP and across Unionism to find a way forward that will face the challenges ahead and have a positive relationship to maximise the Unionist cause.
— Edwin Poots MLA (@edwinpootsmla) May 8, 2021
“I welcome the debate I have helped to generate and the changes that will come. For too long change was talked about but never materialised.
“I am determined to deliver the change that is needed by putting democracy at the core of the party.
“A vibrant democracy brings forward the best ideas by people that can attract support from the broadest spectrum of the our organisation.”
Mr Poots said his manifesto set a “clear direction of travel” that he would immediately take forward on his first day in office and, after consulting with party members on his plans, he would present his package of reforms to the DUP executive for approval by the end of June.
The Lagan Valley MLA said he wanted to provide an “inclusive model of representation from every level of the party” to deliver a “coherent and disciplined organisation”.
He said he will reinvigorate the press arm of the party to refocus on internal and external messaging.
Mr Poots said an independent review of the party’s staffing model would also be undertaken.
Under his proposed reforms, the positions of party leader and Northern Ireland First Minister could not be held by the same person.
As part of new structures he would create a senior leadership advisory panel comprising the leader, deputy leader, First Minister, two MLAs and one MP.
He proposes fortnightly joint meetings of the party’s Assembly and Westminster teams.
Mr Poots said new rules would prevent the party leader “acting unilaterally” in making public appointments to public offices and government bodies.
He said all appointments would be based on merit and would be transparent.
He also promised a new leadership training programme, to prepare members for positions of responsibility.
Mr Poots said the officer team of the party would be democratically elected going forward, with elections held annually among the party executive.
Candidates will require 50 per cent of the vote of the party executive to secure an officer role.
He said the party executive would be expanded to comprise five MLAs, three MPs, two councillors and two rank-and-file members.
On Saturday, Lagan Valley MP Mr Donaldson circulated his reform plans to the electoral college.
He also pledged more inclusive decision-making on policies and a shake-up of party rules.
Mr Donaldson also said he would consult on the potential of having two deputy leaders going forward – one based at Stormont and the other at Westminster.
He said, if elected this week, he will embark on a “listening tour” of Northern Ireland during the summer to enable the party to reconnect with members and voters.
It is understood Mr Donaldson will circulate a further document to party colleagues outlining his wider policy plans this week.
The internal pitches for support from the candidates come after the DUP shut down any public campaign activity in the contest.
The party is preventing candidates and other DUP politicians from speaking publicly about the race, insisting the leadership should remain an internal matter.