Some thoughts on leadership within Unionism…

When talking about Unionism in Northern Ireland, one of the most frequent issues brought up is leadership. Looking at Sinn Fein, the SDLP, and Alliance, there is an abundance of effective leadership on display with more in reserve if the need arises. Unionism, by contrast, is not experiencing similar fortunes, and this has become an issue. Never before has leadership within Unionism been so problematic, especially during a time that could eventually define Northern Ireland. With a massive appetite for change within Unionist electorate, a resolution to the leadership problem does not appear obvious, easy, or immediate. The leadership problem has been an ongoing Achilles’ heel that Unionism has had to ensure in recent times; however, tackling it incorrectly could turn and Achilles’ heel into an amputation.


When the RHI issues came to light, Arlene Foster was severely damaged by the revelations, and from that moment onwards her position became untenable. With no natural successor, Ms Foster triumphantly lead the DUP through the 2017 Westminster elections and into a “Confidence & Supply” arrangement with the Conservatives, this resulted in the Withdrawal Agreement that has undermined the Union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The 2019 Westminster elections seen the DUP hammered across all constituencies accumulating in the loss of two seats with several others left vulnerable. A post-election washup never occurred within Unionism; this was in part due to the global pandemic; however, the need for a change in leadership has remained. Despite almost exemplary handling of the pandemic by Ms Foster where she had shown good judgement, pragmatism, and even the ability to isolate Sinn Fein when they grossly breached guidelines, huge problems remain, and she is destined to be overshadowed by what went before during her tenure.

Current Problems

Arlene Foster’s problems are not limited to the distant past, recently Ms Foster approved the “Executive Committee (Functions) Bill” which allows Ministers to act with greater autonomy and reduces Executive scrutiny, (the DUP were keen to address individual departmental freedom via the St. Andrew’s agreement). This resulted in highly respected ex DUP special advisor Richard Bullick speaking out, and it also caused a mini DUP backbench rebellion with 11 party members abstaining from the vote within the Executive. There have been mutterings within Unionism that history was repeating itself with the finer points of the bill being misunderstood by the DUP leadership.

One of the most open problems within the DUP has been the complete breakdown in discipline. Sammy Wilson has gone on innumerable solo runs against his leader and the UUP Health Minster (whom the DUP vowed to give political cover to) opposing lockdown and face “muzzles”. Many of Sammy Wilson’s social media campaigns could be interpreted as trolling, which is not a good look for an MP. In addition to this Ian Paisley in an interview with Mark Carruthers openly criticised the lockdown in Ballymena that Arlene Foster announced. It has been suggested both Sammy and Ian have been testing the waters for a leadership challenge, however, against the backdrop of a public health crisis these interventions from the Westminster team have not been widely welcomed by the general public.

To compound matters there are the complex challenges facing Northern Ireland, the Withdrawal Agreement and ever-growing calls for a border poll. None of these elements are in any way being addressed by political Unionism.

Unionism Adrift

It’s difficult to imagine a time when Unionism has been as rudderless and ineffective as it currently is. The Withdrawal Agreement which creates a border in the Irish sea has not been altered in a positive way for Northern Ireland despite recent manoeuvres from number 10. Unionism has found itself isolated here as Sinn Fein, SDLP, Greens, Alliance, and even the outside countries have all backed avoiding a hard border in Ireland and preferring instead for the sea border. Unionism has again fallen for the fallacy that the Tories will act in Northern Ireland’s interest by overriding the WA. Unionism should not view Boris Johnson’s intervention as an attempt to protect Northern Ireland and the Union, but in reality, it’s more likely to be a ploy to strengthen the UK’s hand in the negotiations with the EU. For some within Unionism to again fall for Tory bluster is greatly frustrating. Generally, Unionism appears to be going through the motions and drifting from one crisis to another and generally reacting incorrectly to each crisis. It’s difficult to ignore on the flip side the momentum growing within Nationalism for all types of “New Irelands” and with each pressing day, the calls for a border poll become louder. If Unionism continues to lack direction, continually fails to sell the Union, and fails to offer a better vision for Northern Ireland – referendum calls will only get louder. Many within Unionism will be quietly concerned that the Tories could use a potential referendum on unity as a bargaining chip in the future.

The Leadership Runners and Riders

The lack of an obvious replacement is why Arlene Foster remains as leader; the natural successor was likely to have been Simon Hamilton who resigned from politics. The DUP also appears to be suffering from shellshock following the loss of Nigel Dodd’s in North Belfast, someone who would surely have been the leader if he retained his seat. So what options are available to the DUP?

Sammy Wilson – a popular character within the DUP, vastly experienced with a record on the ground of getting things done. Sammy is also being mentioned within certain circles as the “preferred” choice. However, Sammy would be a problematic leader, his reactionary style of politics will not broaden Unionism’s appeal and in fact, will likely put many people off. Too often, Sammy has found himself on the wrong side of the argument and has failed to see the bigger picture. I also don’t believe he offers the vision or strategic prowess needed to move Unionism forward and his elevation to leadership could be detrimental to the DUP and Unionism. Sammy, at times, wants to be the “cheeky chappie” character rather than a serious political leader, it’s ludicrous that with his solo runs he continues to hold the whip within the Westminster team.

Ian Paisley – the Paisley name still carries significant weight within Unionism, particularly in North Antrim, but it would be foolish to overlook a series of scandals that have dogged his career. Ian Paisley will be considered fortunate by many to be still involved in frontline politics, a promotion to leader would not be well received by the electorate.

Jeffrey Donaldson, probably one of the more serious contenders at present, however, the DUP will be hugely reluctant to appoint another ex UUP member as the leader. Furthermore, Jeffrey has had a few interviews recently where he has struggled and it is clear that as leader of the Westminster team, he has lost control which is not a good omen for taking on full party leadership. It’s also unclear what changes Jeffrey Donaldson would bring if any and at best he may offer a safer pair of hands but this is not guaranteed.

Gavin Robinson – one of the outsiders and someone who is probably too inexperienced. However, despite making several errors he has generally used good judgement and will be one of the few DUP candidates with a clean slate. Holding off Naomi Long in East Belfast shows that he is a candidate who should not be taken lightly. However, it’s unclear if he has the leadership skills required and if he is willing to step out from the shadows? Possibly one for the future if he develops more within his current remit.

Edwin Poots – a DUP stalwart who will satisfy traditional grassroots members, however, outside of the DUP he will not be seen as a candidate that can sell the Union with a positive vision for the future. A dream team ticket of “Donaldson and Poots” has been mentioned, but this would result in Edwin Poots as First Minister and realistically that could drive voters to non-Unionist parties.

Pam Cameron – a dark horse but a candidate that is relatively free from many of the issues that engulf other members, she is also respected inside and outside of the party. However, Pam is a little-known entity who may not be ready for the step-up to leadership, and like Gavin Robinson, the party may wish to nurture such a candidate for the future.

Paul Givan – certainly a capable member who will be well respected within the party and a good public speaker. On the downside, his more fundamental views and open support for the Trump administration can be contradictory and off-putting to a wider audience. Leadership ability is unknown and outward appeal could again be problematic.

Paula Bradley – like Pam Cameron a little bit of an unknown entity which can be both a positive a negative. Well respected with some appeal outside of the DUP’s traditional base – the DUP could do worse than to start developing Paula to challenge John Finucane in any future Westminster battle. Probably the wrong time for a leadership challenge.

Christopher Stalford, for me the most serious candidate within the Executive and the least discussed, more popular than most within the DUP although not without his critics. Has the ability to understand the bigger picture but being relatively new to the Assembly he still needs to develop as a potential leader, Chris also has youth on his side and he could be a leader further down the line.

Gordon Lyons  a solid candidate but as of yet too untested and like a number of other DUP party members he is someone whom the party could develop into a more frontline figure in the future.

Diane Dodds – difficult to envisage as a leader, being co-opted into the Assembly and then into a Ministerial position was quite controversial. Unlikely to be considered as a contender.

Better the Devil you Know

Whilst there is a huge appetite for leadership change within Unionism, the natural successor to Arlene Foster is not apparent. Each of the candidates have their pros and cons, but some could actually damage the Unionist brand further and potentially turn many people off the Union. This is a critical time for Unionism and Northern Ireland with a raft of problems not least Brexit. Furthermore, a new leader would oversee the Northern Ireland centenary events and could lead Unionism through a Unity referendum, the wrong candidate of which there are several would be catastrophic. It’s critical Arlene Foster remains in the post for now and helps towards ensuring a smooth transition of power. The change of power should be slow, thoughtful, and purposeful with an eye firmly on the future; however, the process needs to begin and it needs to be seen to have begun. It may even be the case that the next leader resides outside of the current Westminster and Assembly teams. To paraphrase the DUP in recent times, “No leader is better than the wrong leader”.

What Next?

The DUP and Unionism in general need to start thinking long-term and what they envisage for the current and future Northern Ireland? Putting a plan in place to develop the next generation of leaders who can deliver this vision is crucial. It was foolhardy to have Simon Hamilton as Arlene Foster’s successor and when Simon left the party there was no plan B in place. Lacking a credible plan is a problem we have seen replicated across many spectrums within Unionism and it has contributed to many of the current problems. In addition to putting plans in place to develop new leaders, the party needs to restore internal discipline, beginning at Westminster. The DUP accumulate a large number of votes due to being seen as strong on the Union and disciplined. Remembering back to the UUP during the Good Friday Agreement years and their lack of discipline, this resulted in a loss of voter confidence and subsequently votes, the electorate is now starting to see these traits in the DUP. It is also more prudent for a party that has the word “democratic” in its name to have a leadership election rather than a coronation – this is also good for encouraging competition and interest.

The DUP is still suffering from losing some significant talent, including Simon Hamilton, Richard Bullick, and Alastair Ross, these individuals have never been replaced. The political beheading of Nigel Dodds has only compounded the shortage of talent within DUP ranks. This is another aspect that the DUP needs to focus on – recruiting and retaining talent. On the topic of Nigel Dodds, he is the current deputy leader, he will need to become more public-facing again if this is to continue. Counter this against the other deputy leaders such as Michelle O’Neill, Stephen Farry, and Nichola Mallon who are all well-known figures and very visible when representing their parties.

The DUP also needs to look at some of the talents that exist within its council ranks across Northern Ireland so that these candidates are earmarked for winnable seats at the next Assembly election. The DUP does not just need a change in leadership but it needs a change in personnel right across the party including the Westminster team.

It’s ironic that the natural leader for Unionism resides within the UUP in Doug Beattie, something I have commented on before. It is equally ironic that the complete decline of the UUP is starting to hurt the DUP. Unionism as a whole needs an effective and plausible second party as this helps competition and whilst like the DUP, the UUP has many good members, it is not a movement that many are seeing as the natural alternative to the DUP – this needs to be addressed!

Final Analysis

It’s critical that if the DUP wants to continue leading Unionism it must encompass more long-term, strategic thinking and this needs to begin with the leadership transition. Lacking effective leadership has become an Achilles’ heel for Unionism in recent years and it’s a problem that will have to be endured for the foreseeable future. Taking on the role of leader of Unionism is not an easy task, with an audience that will generally be sceptical and indeed cynical of change, there is an onus on us within Unionism to encourage and support new thinking that is properly explained in practical and strategic terms. These are critical times, with the political situation fluid and generally, out of Unionism’s hands, it’s imperative that Unionism begins to seriously get its house in order. Too Unionism is lampooned due to individuals making poor decisions or adopting a reactionary position, sometimes for a reaction more than due to ideological reasons. The next leader of Unionism could be leading Unionism through a unity referendum, the wrong leader in place would be catastrophic, and with a huge “other” demographic that could in theory swing either way, the wrong leader could sway this base in ways that the IRA via their campaigns could never have hoped for.

Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger.

While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.