Who are the potential contenders to lead the DUP?

Gavin Robinson, Edwin Poots and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
Gavin Robinson, Edwin Poots and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
21:47pm, Wed 28 Apr 2021
CBAD8A00-D2B9-4E0E-ADDF-D0366C357A34 Created with sketchtool. E9A4AA46-7DC3-48B8-9CE2-D75274FB8967 Created with sketchtool. 65CCAE04-4748-4D0F-8696-A91D8EB3E7DC Created with sketchtool.

The DUP has never had a contested leadership election and it remains to be seen whether it will be any different this time.

Arlene Foster, the third leader in the party’s history, replaced the retiring Peter Robinson unchallenged in 2015, in the same way he had succeeded party founder Ian Paisley in 2008.

It is not clear if the next leader will enjoy a similar coronation, or whether there will be more than one candidate vying for the party’s top job.

There has also been considerable speculation that whoever emerges as DUP leader may not take up the role of Stormont First Minister.

Rules on double jobbing mean a sitting MP could not be First Minister and there have been suggestions the party faithful might prefer to split the two positions, with a leader based in Westminster while another senior member takes the reins at Stormont Castle.

The model is not without precedent and is already operated by the DUP’s partners-in-government, Sinn Fein.

The contest, when it is held, will involve a very small electorate – only the party’s MLAs and MPs will get a vote.

Here are some of the contenders that could emerge as either DUP leader and/or First Minister following Mrs Foster’s departure:

– Sir Jeffrey Donaldson

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (PA Archive)

The long-standing Lagan Valley MP is the party’s current leader at Westminster. The former Ulster Unionist is seen as a moderate whose political outlook would be broadly in line with Mrs Foster’s. There is a sense that the traditional wing of the DUP never quite trusted Mrs Foster due to her UUP roots and Sir Jeffrey would face a similar challenge if he was to succeed her.

– Edwin Poots

Edwin Poots (PA Wire)

Stormont’s current Agriculture Minister. An experienced ministerial operator who has held a number of senior executive portfolios. Has made little secret of his political ambitions and is seen by many as the leading contender to replace Mrs Foster. Viewed as a hardliner, he would be more aligned with the religious fundamentalist/Paislite wing of the party. Has found himself in an awkward position of late as the minister with responsibility for implementing the checks required under the Northern Ireland Protocol – a factor that could work against him.

– Gavin Robinson

Gavin Robinson (PA Archive)

MP for East Belfast and former lord mayor of Belfast. The face of the party’s young generation. A former barrister, Mr Robinson is seen as a very capable operator. He would also be viewed as a political moderate.

– Sammy Wilson

Sammy Wilson (PA Archive)

Was tempted to challenge for the job in 2015 but ultimately did not run after Peter Robinson made it clear that Mrs Foster was the preferred candidate to succeed him. The arch Brexiteer is a popular figure with the grassroots and would be viewed as another hardliner. Whether he would consider running this time round is unclear. His opportunity to do so may have come and gone in 2015.

– Nigel Dodds

Nigel Dodds (PA Archive)

In normal circumstances, the deputy leader would be well placed to succeed the leader. However, the internal criticism of Mrs Foster has extended to Lord Dodds and it would be highly unlikely that he would be seen as the “change” candidate the rank and file are hankering for.

– Ian Paisley

Ian Paisley (PA Archive)

The son of the party founder, Mr Paisley has a very significant personal following within the DUP. However, he is sometimes viewed as somewhat of a maverick who ploughs his own furrow in the Paisley stronghold of North Antrim. His standing within the party outside of his constituency heartland has been dinted by a series of controversies involving the non-declaration of foreign trips with the parliamentary authorities.

Sign up to our newsletter