Lawmakers from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) cast their votes on Friday in a party leadership contest which will determine the new first minister of the British-ruled province.
The 36 members of the DUP’s electoral college — made up of UK parliament MPs and members of the devolved assembly in Belfast — began registering their votes in an online secret ballot to replace Arlene Foster.
Foster announced last month she would step down after a party coup over post-Brexit arrangements, which many in her hardline pro-UK party say endangers Northern Ireland’s status.
Edwin Poots, who is agriculture minister in the Belfast assembly, and Jeffrey Donaldson, who sits in the UK parliament in London, are competing for the top job.
The result, expected at about 1600 GMT Friday, will allow them to select the new first minister in Belfast.
Foster, 50, has said she will stand down as party leader on May 28 and as Northern Ireland’s first minister at the end of June.
Of the two new candidates to replace her, Poots, 55, has been described as a frontrunner by regional media.
Poots is a “young earth creationist” who rejects the theory of evolution and believes the world was made by God around 4,000 BC.
He has also taken a hardline stance against the post-Brexit “protocol” for Northern Ireland, which since the start of the year has effectively kept the province in the European customs union and single market for goods.
– Crisis for unionism –
Many unionists in Northern Ireland, which is split between pro-UK and pro-Ireland factions, believe it has effectively created an “Irish sea border” which casts the region adrift from mainland Britain — England, Scotland and Wales.
Under the leadership of Foster, who is considered a moderate, the DUP has vehemently opposed the protocol but been powerless to prevent UK prime minister Boris Johnson imposing it.
However Poots has said if he wins the position of party leader he will not serve as first minister, but will delegate the position elsewhere.
Donaldson, 58, is regarded as a more moderate voice in the DUP — a hard-right organisation with Protestant roots.
However he is willing to ramp up opposition to the protocol even if it means collapsing the Northern Ireland executive, the BBC has reported.
The power-sharing Northern Ireland assembly is balanced between unionists and pro-Ireland nationalists under the terms of a 1998 peace deal which ended three decades of sectarian conflict over British rule.
The executive was collapsed for three years until January 2020 when the two sides were unable to govern in consensus.
The DUP leadership contest comes amid a wider crisis in political unionism in Northern Ireland, which is home to 1.9 million.
Steve Aiken — the head of the second largest pro-UK political group the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) — also announced his resignation on Saturday.
Anger about the post-Brexit protocol was a contributing factor to more than a week of rioting across Northern Ireland in April, which emanated from the unionist community and saw at least 88 police injured.
Unionists, including Foster and Aiken, have brought a judicial review of the legality of the protocol at the High Court in Belfast.
The court was told on Friday it was “unlawful on a number of grounds”.