Former DUP leader Edwin Poots is to contest the Assembly seat previously held by the late Christopher Stalford in a move seen as giving his successor Jeffrey Donaldson a chance to realise his ambition of becoming Northern Ireland’s first minister.
Mr Poots, the agriculture minister, is to move from his Lagan Valley constituency, where Mr Donaldson is currently MP, to South Belfast where Mr Stalford (39) was MLA prior to his sudden death last month.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Mr Donaldson confirmed that Mr Poots would stand in South Belfast in the May 5th Stormont elections. But he did not confirm if he would seek to replace his colleague in Lagan Valley.
Jon Tonge, professor of politics at University of Liverpool, said Mr Donaldson would be a shoo-in to take an Assembly seat in the constituency, with just two DUP candidates standing, including Paul Givan, who recently resigned as first minister. Mr Givan’s decision, taken in protest at the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol, means the powersharing Executive cannot meet, although individual ministers can continue in their positions.
Mr Tonge suggested that the quick restoration of a fully working administration after voters go to the polls could depend on Mr Donaldson’s ambitions being realised.
“The biggest question is not whether Donaldson will make it in Lagan Valley – he should be home and hosed with only two runners — but where does his party lie after the election,” he said.
“Whether it is the largest party or the largest unionist party? If they are not the largest and not in a position to nominate a First Minister, they can kick back the full restoration of the Executive until October.”
Northern secretary Brandon Lewis recently pushed legislation through Westminster extending the deadline for the restoration of the Executive in the event of a first minister and deputy first minister not being nominated after the election.
“It will look like a humiliation for Mr Donaldson to go into the Executive as deputy first minister, albeit a joint office. It will be a harder sell to himself and his party, appearing to be second prize, a silver medal,” said Mr Tonge.
“So, the chances of the institutions being restored quickly is significantly better if the DUP is returned as the largest party.”
Mr Poots said it was with “a lot of regret” that he was taking over the South Belfast seat following the death of Mr Stalford, but that he was doing so at the request of his late friend’s family.
“I have a hard act to follow,” he said. “It is also with regret that I leave the constituency of Lagan Valley. Sometimes you have to make hard decisions and that is the decision I have made and I believe it is a decision that will bring some degree of comfort to the family that they have someone with the same values as Christopher representing this constituency.”
Mr Tonge said Mr Poots’ chances of retaining Mr Stalford’s seat would be boosted by their friendship but it was “not implausible” that he could lose out.
“South Belfast is certainly no longer natural DUP territory,” he said.
“It has become a very liberal, middle class constituency over the years. University students and middle classes won’t all be rushing to vote for Mr Poots, who is more attractive to the traditionalists and rural vote within the DUP.”