Rise of the Reactionaries: Edwin Poots and the State of Northern Ireland

Written May 14th, 2021

Arlene Foster, former leader of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (DUP) was forced out of her position following a vote of no confidence by her party over two issues; firstly her support for Boris Johnson who has been widely blamed for the Northern Irish sea border and secondly for her decision to abstain on a vote over the banning of so-called ‘gay conversion therapy’, a measure opposed by the majority of the DUP. On the 14th of May, 2021, the DUP elected a new leader, Edwin Poots. Mr Poots, though expressing no desire to be First Minister, has the power to appoint someone to the position and his mandate comes from the 19 DUP MPs and MLAs who voted for him, not from the people of Northern Ireland. The decision to vote for Poots as the party leader is undoubtedly a reaction by the Christian right of the DUP to Arlene Foster’s perceived tolerance towards the gay community (though an abstention on a law to protect the LGBT community is hardly gay-rights advocacy) and this has potentially problematic implications for the future of the six counties.

Edwin Poots is a man who possesses views that are fittingly as 19th century as his name and the power given to him to appoint the First Minister of Northern Ireland is a power given to an intolerant, Christian fundamentalist wing of Northern Irish conservatism. On the issue of same-sex relationships, Mr Poots has made it abundantly clear that he does not support such unions; in 2013 he appealed a ruling that any adoption ban on gay and lesbian couples was unlawful and in 2018 Mr Poots told Love Equality campaigners that he and his party were committed to the “current definition of marriage” as being between one man and one woman. In October of 2019 Northern Ireland legalised abortion and in January 2020 the Legislative Assembly legalised same-sex marriage and yet in the midst of this progress the six counties may be handed over to an unelected Christian reactionary who opposes such measures. The DUP’s new leader has also proposed a ban on homosexuals donating blood, along with people who have had sex with Africans or prostitutes — all things he deems to be “high-risk sexual behaviour”. His bizarre and unfounded prejudices have also seen him claim that COVID-19 infections in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland outnumber those in unionist areas “around six to one” despite being unable to provide a source for those claims and a response by the Department of Health that stated “data on Covid infections is not collected according to religious or political affiliation”. Given his affinity for scientific ignorance, Edwin Poots is also a firm believer that the earth is a mere 6,000 years old contrary to the scientific consensus on the issue that estimates an age of around 5.54 billion years — a belief derived entirely from a combination of anthropological history and the Book of Genesis that is endorsed by Poots’ Church, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster. Certainly an interesting choice for one of the most powerful politicians in the currently United Kingdom’s most turbulent region, at a rather turbulent time.

Poots’ opponent was not a particularly desirable candidate either. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is equally opposed to same-sex marriage, opposed to LGBT inclusive education and is decidedly anti-Catholic. In 2009 he claimed that Catholics owe their allegiance to the Pope and the Vatican, echoing the spirit of the typically antisemitic ‘dual loyalty’ trope that labels Jews as traitors and agents of Israel — in this case creating a divide between those who had a loyalty to the Union and those who had a loyalty to the Pope, any loyalty to Ireland or the Irish people is a mere afterthought. Sir Jeffrey, who expressed an interest in becoming First Minister, would be a logical choice for Poots as extending the religious fundamentalist olive branch to his opponent could help to counteract the “Unionist bickering” that he criticised in his victory speech.

With loyalist provoked riots, the threat of a return of sectarian violence and debates surrounding the Northern Irish border, there will be a lot for Mr Poots and whoever he selects as First Minister to deal with. In such a precarious position it is unquestionably unhealthy for Stormont to be led by an unelected mini-dictator with hardcore Christian, conservative and anti-Catholic views. The 12th of July creeps ever closer by the day, let us hope for diplomacy and co-operation from the new fundamentalist establishment.

Generally favourable to human freedom.