Who is Edwin Poots? Fundamentalist Christian and former farmer elected leader of the DUP

·5-min read
Edwin Poots - REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne
Edwin Poots - REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Edwin Poots, the newly elected leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, is a conviction politician. One of those convictions includes a belief that the Earth is just 6,000 years old and was created by God in about 4,000 BC.

A fundamentalist Christian, Mr Poots, 55, is a member of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, the religious church founded in 1951 by The Reverend Dr Ian Paisley 20 years before he set up the DUP. Not surprisingly, Dr Paisley, one of the towering figures of Northern Ireland politics up until his death in 2014, was Mr Poots’ great childhood inspiration.

In 2007, Mr Poots had been asked on a radio programme about his creationist beliefs. "My view on the Earth is that it's a young Earth. My view is 4000BC," he explained.

Asked if that meant he dismissed the science of evolution, he was clear. "Yes, absolutely. And you're telling me that all of this evolution took place over billions of years, and yet it's only in the last few thousand years that man could actually learn to write? You're telling me that cosmic balls of dust gathered and there was an explosion? We've had lots of explosions in Northern Ireland and I've never seen anything come out of that that was good."

His father, Charles Poots, was a founding member of the DUP and Mr Poots junior joined up at the age of 16. He has been in the party all his adult life. His Christian conservatism makes him a popular choice among DUP die-hards, but his views will go down far less well with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the now defunct Provisional IRA, with whom the DUP must do business if Stormont is to survive under its power-sharing agreements.

Gay men blood donation debacle

As a health minister in Stormont, he tried to maintain a ban on gay men giving blood; a rule imposed across the UK at the height of the AIDS epidemic and only lifted in England, Scotland and Wales in 2011.

However, Mr Poots, who was health minister up until 2014, tried to keep the ban in place and the prohibition was only overturned in the law courts, which ruled that his decision-making was "infected by apparent bias".

Mr Poots, a father-of-four, had insisted his stance was based on the need to be certain of the "safety" of blood supplies.

He was dismayed by the court’s interference in the matter, telling members of the Northern Ireland Assembly in belligerent fashion: "There is a continual battering of Christian principles, and I have to say this - shame on the courts for going down the route of constantly attacking Christian principles, Christian ethics and Christian morals, on which this society was based and which have given us a very good foundation."

Edwin Poots - Peter Morrison /AP
Edwin Poots - Peter Morrison /AP

In 2013, he sparked controversy over his attempts - again defeated by the courts - to prevent LGBT couples from adopting children.

"The natural order," he explained, "is for a man and a woman to have a child… Now people can criticise me for that and they can challenge me for it and they can say it's backward. The truth is that still today in this modern era it is only a man and a woman that can produce a child and therefore I think it’s in the best order for a man and a woman to raise a child".

During the pandemic, he was accused of "trying to politicise and sectarianise" the spread of Covid after he said cases were more prevalent in "nationalist areas". Mr Poots later said his words had been twisted and misinterpreted.

Farmer who became agriculture minister

Mr Poots grew up in Lisburn, about eight miles outside Belfast and attended agricultural college. He is an Orangeman and sings in his church choir. A farmer by trade, he was appointed agriculture minister last year, stepping aside briefly after being diagnosed with cancer.

He has said he intends to lead the party but has rejected the position of First Minister, arguing that they are two big jobs and should not be combined. He is likely to remain as agriculture minister.

It is claimed Mr Poots was instrumental in leading the coup against Arlene Foster, whom he replaces as DUP leader. Mrs Foster had stirred problems among the Paisleyite fundamentalist wing of the DUP over - among other matters - social issues, including her support for a ban on gay conversion therapy.

But it is Mr Poots’ stance on the Northern Ireland Protocol - the deal that implemented a border down the Irish Sea - that will be intensely watched from Westminster.

The major contribution to Mrs Foster’s downfall was unbridled anger at the post-Brexit trading deal. Mr Poots has made it a campaign pledge to "systematically undermine and strip away all aspects" of the Northern Ireland protocol. How he achieves that is unclear.

Although popular among the hardline DUP, Mr Poots’ election victory will inevitably be seen as divisive at a time when Northern Ireland is clinging on to peace amid fears of a return to violence.

Dr Paisley formed the unlikeliest working relationship - and even friendship - with Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander turned Sinn Fein leader. The pair - First Minister and deputy - were nicknamed the ‘chuckle brothers’. But whether Mr Poots can strike up such an alliance with Michelle O’Neill, the head of Sinn Fein and current deputy first minister, may be less likely.

'DUP held its nose doing business with Sinn Féin'

Mr Poots previously said in a BBC television debate in 2015 that his party had to "hold our noses" when doing business with Sinn Féin.

Ms O'Neill, meanwhile, has already warned that the incoming DUP leader "should recognise that the political landscape across our island has changed".

But some argue that Mr Poots is also a pragmatist, and point out the senior role he played in behind-the-scenes negotiations to restore the devolved government after the collapse of power-sharing.

He has run on a platform of reform of the DUP and issued a five-page manifesto in which he argued that Unionism could only thrive through "more democratic structures".

It’s now to be seen if the self-confessed young Earth creationist can transform the fortunes of Unionism in a speedy manner. He doesn’t have much time.

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