By David Young, PA
A DUP minister viewed as a potential successor to Arlene Foster has pulled out of a scheduled north-south meeting with Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue.
The move by the North's Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots, who is seen as more hardline than Mrs Foster, comes amid calls from some sections of unionism for the DUP to end participation in cross-border political structures while Brexit’s Irish Sea border remains in place.
Internal critics of Mrs Foster, many of whom have signed a letter of no confidence in her leadership, are pressing for the party to adopt a more robust approach in opposing the Northern Ireland Protocol, which governs the new post-Brexit trading arrangements.
In that context, some are interpreting Mr Poots’ no-show as a signal of intent amid the escalating leadership crisis in the DUP.
I am disappointed the scheduled North/South Ministerial Council meeting did not take place
This engagement is crucial to strengthening North South ties
I urge all sides to work together for the betterment of our farmers&wider communities
We work stronger when we work together.
— Charlie McConalogue (@McConalogue) April 28, 2021
Mrs Foster’s future as DUP leader and the North's First Minister hangs in the balance after party colleagues mounted a heave against her.
It is understood a significant number of DUP politicians have signed a letter of no confidence in Mrs Foster that was circulated among party MLAs, MPs and peers.
If those numbers are confirmed and subsequently replicated in any future leadership contest – a vote confined to MPs and MLAs – her five-and-a-half year tenure as leader would be set to end.
It remains unclear whether Mrs Foster would contest a leadership vote if one is triggered.
There is some speculation that if Mrs Foster does depart, the twin roles she currently occupies could be split going forward, with one politician taking on the role of party leader and another being appointed First Minister.
On Tuesday afternoon, Mrs Foster attempted to downplay the scale of the internal revolt, which comes amid mounting discontent among party faithful over her leadership.
“Stories on leadership come up from time to time, and it’s one of those times,” she said.
However, in an indication of the rapidly developing situation, Mrs Foster cancelled a scheduled meeting with the North's Secretary of State Brandon Lewis and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill on Tuesday evening.
Later on Tuesday evening, Mrs Foster posted a Biblical quotation on her Facebook page: “It is God who arms me with strength and keeps my way secure.”
In a statement, the DUP insisted questions over Mrs Foster’s future were an internal matter.
The party said its democratic electoral processes were for its members, and declined to offer further comment.
There has been growing unease among DUP members about Mrs Foster and the wider party leadership in recent months.
The primary source of concern is the handling of the Brexit process. The DUP is facing anger from the wider loyalist and unionist community.
Critics have accused Mrs Foster of failing to use the party’s influence at Westminster – particularly during its confidence and supply deal with the Conservatives – to secure a Brexit deal that saw Northern Ireland leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK.
She has also been accused of not being vociferous enough in opposition to the Protocol, which governs the new Brexit trading barriers between the North and Britain, ahead of its introduction at the start of 2021.
Poor recent polling numbers have exacerbated the discontent within the party faithful, who are mindful of next May’s looming Assembly election.
Mr Poots’ non-attendance at the north-south meeting with Irish Agriculture minister Charlie McConalogue comes amid recent uncertainty about the DUP’s strategy in respect of north-south engagement.
Today’s scheduled meeting of ministers North/South on rural development and agriculture was cancelled as no DUP Minister would attend. The North/South dimension is central to the Good Friday Agreement & there is no alternative. Put simply these hare-brained antics are juvenile.
— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) April 28, 2021
The DUP has failed to turn up for two previous meetings in recent weeks, but last week DUP Economy Minister Diane Dodds did participate in a planned economic development meeting with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar.
While Mrs Foster has insisted north-south cooperation will be impacted as part of her strategy to undermine the Protocol, she has made clear her ministers will fulfil their obligations to attend north-south ministerial council meetings that are unrelated to the Brexit dispute.
Mr McConalogue tweeted: “I am disappointed the scheduled North/South Ministerial Council meeting did not take place,” he said.
“This engagement is crucial to strengthening North South ties.
“I urge all sides to work together for the betterment of our farmers & wider communities. We work stronger when we work together.”
Sinn Féin deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill criticised Mr Poots.
“Today’s scheduled meeting of ministers North/South on rural development and agriculture was cancelled as no DUP Minister would attend,” she tweeted.
“The North/South dimension is central to the Good Friday Agreement & there is no alternative. Put simply these hare-brained antics are juvenile.”
Aside from the Protocol, Mrs Foster’s decision to abstain in a vote on gay conversion therapy last week appears to have further agitated sections of the party’s fundamentalist grassroots.
On Tuesday morning, the Belfast News Letter reported that several DUP constituency associations had written letters expressing concern at Mrs Foster’s abstention on a motion that called for a ban on gay conversion therapy but did not incorporate a specific mention of protections for religious practices.
The majority of her party Assembly colleagues voted against the motion, having failed to amend it to include reference to religious protections.
Mrs Foster was among only five party members, including fellow Stormont Executive ministers Peter Weir and Mrs Dodds, who abstained.
That episode points to tensions between Mrs Foster, a member of the Church of Ireland and former Ulster Unionist, and the more traditional Free Presbyterian wing of the DUP, who perceive her as potentially too moderate on some social issues.
Mrs Foster was asked whether her leadership was in question on a visit to a youth centre in Belfast on Tuesday afternoon.
“We’ll just deal with it and move on because I’ve bigger things to do, including getting us through this Covid pandemic, including listening to the concerns of working-class communities,” she said.
“These stories come up from time to time. This is no different.”