Edwin Poots has faced criticism from sacked DUP ministers as he announced a new-look Northern Ireland Executive team that included Paul Givan as First Minister designate.
Departing Education and Economy ministers Peter Weir and Diane Dodds both claimed Mr Poots’ choices for senior Assembly roles were evidence of failure to reach out to those who opposed him in the leadership contest.
The vast majority of those selected by the new leader had supported him in his bid to succeed the ousted Arlene Foster, with only a small number of roles handed to those who had backed Jeffrey Donaldson.
At 39, Lagan Valley MLA Mr Givan, a close political ally of Mr Poots, is poised to become the North's youngest First Minister.
He said the job came with a “huge responsibility” to deliver for people in Northern Ireland.
Mr Poots’ early days as leader have been marred by ongoing unrest among party members furious at the manner in which Mrs Foster was deposed. Several members have quit in protest.
Mr Weir, who is being replaced at the Department of Education by Michelle McIlveen, tweeted that it was “sad there is little sign of healing or reaching out” in the appointments.
Mrs Dodds, who is being replaced as Economy Minister by Paul Frew, tweeted that it was “regrettable” the new team “does not match the rhetoric about healing and bringing the party together”.
Significantly, and in another sign of the current turmoil within the party, her remark was retweeted by both Mrs Foster and Mr Donaldson. Mr Donaldson also retweeted Mr Weir’s tweet.
It is regrettable however that the new team announced today does not match the rhetoric about healing and bringing the party together.
— Diane Dodds MLA (@DianeDoddsMLA) June 8, 2021
Mr Poots later brushed aside the criticism, as he was pressed on Mrs Dodds’ tweet during a Stormont press conference.
“I accept that Diane probably isn’t in the best place today,” he said.
“I have been in that circumstance twice before, where I’ve been a minister and I’ve been asked to step aside for others. And therefore that is a natural reaction.”
However, Mr Poots said it was “inaccurate” to claim his team was only made up of his supporters.
“This team includes people who didn’t vote for me, who did vote for me and who didn’t declare their intentions,” he said.
Mr Poots rejected allegations made by some resigning DUP members that there had been bullying and intimidation from members of his camp during the leadership contest.
There are some great appointments but disappointed to leave education, and in the balance of appointments it is sad there is little sign of healing or reaching out
— Peter Weir (@peterweirmla) June 8, 2021
When it was put to him that people may feel too scared to voice concerns about recent developments within the DUP, Mr Poots said: “Let me just nail this thing about being too scared.
“This party is a party that will reach out to people and I, as a leader, am not someone who is either scary or bullying – I want to nail that absolutely and factually.
“If anybody wants to bring forward facts, they will be investigated, and they will be investigated fairly.
“I’m not standing for people coming forward with accusations without backing them with facts.”
Mrs Foster, who was deposed as DUP leader following an internal revolt instigated by supporters of Mr Poots, is expected to resign as First Minister at the start of next week.
While Mr Poots’ choices for Economy and Education Ministers will take up their roles at that point, a renomination process involving Sinn Féin will have to be undertaken before Mr Givan assumes office.
When Mrs Foster resigns as First Minister, Sinn Féin deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill is automatically removed from her post as well – 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 and a snap election would become likely.
There has been speculation Sinn Féin might seek a guarantee from Mr Poots to pass legislation for Irish language speakers as a prerequisite for it engaging in the nomination process.
Mr Poots, who again pledged to legislate on the Irish language and all other outstanding elements of the 2020 deal that restored devolution, said he expected the nomination process to be straightforward.
“I can’t see why it wouldn’t be straightforward,” he said.
“Because the issues that the public are talking about, in particular the health service, recovery from Covid-19, waiting times in our hospitals of 335,000 – there’s a job to be done. We’ve all got a job to do.
“We’ve got a mandate to do that job. I will respect Sinn Féin’s mandate and I expect them to respect my mandate.”
Previous DUP leaders have all taken up the role of Stormont First Minister themselves.
Mr Poots has broken with that tradition, explaining that he wants to concentrate his energies on rebuilding and reforming the DUP. He will remain as the North's Agriculture Minister however.
Tribute to Foster
Announcing Mr Givan as First Minister designate, Mr Poots paid tribute to Mrs Foster, thanking her for the “excellent work” she had done.
Mr Givan expressed hope for a smooth and effective transition in the Executive.
“There’s a huge responsibility that comes with this position, particularly in serving the people of Northern Ireland as we come through the Covid pandemic, the recovery that’s needed in our economy, within our education system, and meeting the needs of the people,” he said.
“We have a huge task when it comes to tackling our waiting lists, and we need to get to work.”
Mr Givan said: “There is a huge responsibility that comes with this position, particularly in serving the people of Northern Ireland.”
Mr Poots also named Gary Middleton as Junior Minister.
He also named a series of committee chair and vice chair appointments on Tuesday.
The announcements came after a series of party resignations.
South Down DUP constituency association chairman and councillor Glyn Hanna, his daughter Diane Forsythe, association member Richard McKee, and councillor Kathryn Owen all announced their resignations this week.
The latest to quit was Upper Bann association member Roberta McNally.