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The likely contenders to replace Arlene Foster as DUP leader 

After Arlene Foster’s decision to quit as leader of Democratic Unionist party in the wake of an internal revolt, there is a vacancy at the top.

The party, founded half a century ago by firebrand Ian Paisley, is at a crossroads, with polls in February showing a sharp decline in support in favour of the Traditional Unionist Voice led by Jim Allister, who broke away from the DUP in 2007, and the Alliance, a centrist party eschewing orange and green politics.

The DUP has yet to reveal what its selection process is, whether the new leader will also be the first minister, or whether they will separate the roles. Here, we look at the likely contenders who might be in the running to lead the party.

Edwin Poots, 55, member of Legislative Assembly

Stormont minister Edwin Poots in January 2021 Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

Stormont’s agriculture minister and an early frontrunner. As a young Earth creationist who believes the planet is only 6,000 years old and as someone who has opposed gay adoption and in the past, Poots has plenty of appeal in the hardline conservative end of the party unhappy with Foster’s relatively centrist approach. But he is also a political pragmatist. As health minister, he brushed aside opposition to plans for an all-Ireland solution to child heart surgery and sealed a deal on it with Dublin. On the Brexit protocol, he also showed willingness to make it work but said its application had been “oppressive, burdensome and frankly ridiculous”. “What in the name of goodness has that got to do with a pizza ending up on a table in Belfast?” he said.

Sammy Wilson, 68, MP for East Antrim

Sammy Wilson
The DUP’s Sammy Wilson in December 2019 Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

The selection of Wilson, rarely shy of an angry exchange in the of House of Commons, would further cement the party’s opposition to the Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland protocol that has so enraged the loyalist and unionist communities. It would delight those in the party who want to see the protocol scrapped altogether and could signal a desire for an early Stormont election, giving the DUP a chance to win back support in working-class loyalist communities lost to rivals such as Allister’s TUV on an anti-protocol manifesto. Such a rallying point may not exist next year, when elections are due to take place, unless power-sharing collapses, forcing an earlier vote.

A Wilson-led DUP would spell trouble for Boris Johnson. The prime minister has said he is currently trying to “sandpaper” the “ludicrous barriers” created by the protocol and strain further relations between the UK and the EU. In February, Wilson threatened “guerrilla warfare” against the protocol, warning the House of Commons leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, that the DUP would not be waiting until 2024 to vote on whether it should continue.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, 58, MP for Lagan Valley

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in November 2019 Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

Leader of the party in Westminster, succeeding Lord Nigel Dodds, who lost his seat in the 2019 general election. Came into politics through the Ulster Unionist party and was once tipped as a future leader. Having lost two cousins in IRA atrocities, he said he was motivated to join the party to fight paramilitaries on the political front.

But he walked away from the party after a brutal clash with UUP leader David Trimble over the 1998 Good Friday agreement. Now considered one of the most temperate in a party known for firebrand politics, he could be a unifying figure. Opposes the Northern Ireland protocol, arguing that it is a breach of the agreement because it was signed without the consent of the unionist and loyalist communities.

Gavin Robinson, 36, MP for Belfast East

Gavin Robinson
Gavin Robinson on election day in 2019 Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

The youngest of the likely candidates, Robinson could be seen as a clean-break option who will deliver the hunger for regime change reportedly behind the ousting of Arlene Foster. A former lord mayor of Belfast, Robinson has been an MP since 2015. Along with the rest of his party, he voted against teaching pupils about LGBT families, burnishing his credentials with the religious hardliners in the party. However, like Poots, he is a pragmatist. Recently he said he agreed with former party leader Peter Robinson, who said unionists should not ignore a potential future referendum on a united Ireland so they can enter the fight fully prepared for the defence of the union.

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