I will only unveil ministerial line-up when I am ready – Edwin Poots
New DUP leader Edwin Poots has denied he has delayed making ministerial appointments in response to an internal rift within the party.
There had been speculation that Mr Poots would unveil his ministerial team on Tuesday at Stormont.
While the party leader did announce some internal DUP appointments, he said his reshuffle of Executive ministers would only be done when he was “ready”, indicating that would be in a “number of days”.
Mr Poots also played down suggestions that appointing new first and deputy first ministers at Stormont could become mired in political contention, amid speculation Sinn Fein could use the process to gain firm assurances from the DUP on legislating for Irish language protections within a set timeframe.
The DUP leader said he had received “no ultimatums” from Sinn Fein and did not expect any.
There are deep divisions within the DUP following the ousting of Arlene Foster and Mr Poots’ subsequent razor-thin leadership win over rival Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.
The extent of that internal strife was laid bare last week when senior party members gathered at a Belfast hotel to ratify Mr Poots’ appointment.
Some senior figures, including Mrs Foster, left the meeting before Mr Poots addressed the audience while a long-time member in Mrs Foster’s Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency announced his resignation from the party to waiting media outside.
At a Stormont press conference on Tuesday, Mr Poots was pressed whether his ministerial reshuffle had been delayed due to the party divisions and his efforts to heal the wounds inflicted in recent weeks.
“Absolutely not,” he said.
“I’m working very extensively to ensure that we get the right team with the right balance, and we will get a fresh injection as we go forward in that ministerial team, in that team of committee chairs and vice-chairs and so forth.
“There will be lots of people who will be coming into the team who previously haven’t been utilised before and there’ll be others who will be utilised in different ways.”
Mr Poots denied it had been his intention to unveil his ministers on Tuesday.
“I don’t know who said it but I certainly didn’t give any indication of when I intended to announce my ministers,” he said.
“That is something that I will do when I’m ready to do it.”
Elsewhere on Tuesday, Sir Jeffrey said Mr Poots needed to address the concerns about division within the party.
The Lagan Valley MP said that people in Northern Ireland want to see a unionism that “reaches out”.
“Those concerns do need to be addressed and I hope that Edwin and his team will look very carefully at what is being said,” Sir Jeffrey told the PA news agency in Hillsborough.
“My concern is for Northern Ireland. We all want to see political stability.
“We are emerging from a pandemic, our economy needs a boost.
“We will wait and see what the party leader does in terms of his ministerial appointments. We need to move Northern Ireland forward.”
While Mrs Foster remains First Minister she has said she will formally quit the role when Mr Poots reshuffles the other DUP ministerial positions in the Executive.
Mr Poots had said Mrs Foster could decide her own departure date but the former leader has made clear she will not serve as First Minister, even for only a number of weeks, if she is heading up a ministerial team she did not appoint.
The new party leader is to remain as Agriculture Minister, leaving him with decisions to make over who will take on the First Minister’s job, as well as the economy and education portfolios and the role of Stormont Junior Minister.
It is thought unlikely that Economy Minister Diane Dodds, Education Minister Peter Weir or Junior Minister Gordon Lyons will remain in place.
The DUP leader said he would be neither pushed into making an announcement or held back from doing so.
He added: “A course of work has been done in terms of my engagement with MPs, MLAs and colleagues.
“That course of work is coming close to completion and I’ll make my announcement in a number of days, when I’m ready.”
Following a meeting with the party’s MLA group on Tuesday morning, Mr Poots announced some internal DUP appointments, including East Belfast MLA Joanne Bunting as chief whip at the Assembly.
Upper Bann MLA Jonathan Buckley has been appointed Mr Poots’ chief of staff while South Antrim MLA Trevor Clarke and North Belfast MLA William Humphrey have been appointed assistant party whips.
Fellow MLAs Paula Bradley, the party’s deputy leader, and Michelle McIlveen, the party secretary, are to take on new roles with responsibility for the welfare of DUP elected representatives.
When Mrs Foster resigns as First Minister, current Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill is automatically removed from post – as the joint office can only function if both positions are filled.
Both parties will then need to renominate their respective first and deputy first ministers within seven days.
If one of the parties declines to renominate then a functioning executive could not be formed. There has been speculation Sinn Fein might use the nomination procedure to seek assurances from Mr Poots that he will deliver on commitments his party made in the deal to restore powersharing in 2020 to legislate for protections for Irish language speakers.
Asked about that prospect on Tuesday, Mr Poots said: “Certainly I have received no ultimatums nor do I expect to receive an ultimatum, because we must remember the last time that the Assembly wasn’t operative our health waiting lists went through the roof.
“So we have now over 300,000 people on our health waiting lists – that is not satisfactory. I can’t imagine that any of the parties wouldn’t nominate and wouldn’t want to ensure that the Assembly runs its full term.
“And certainly Sinn Fein haven’t put that to me and I don’t expect them to put it to me because the key important issues are around health, around the (Northern Ireland) Protocol, around the issues that (Education Minister) Peter Weir is dealing with today, educational underachievement.”