In what is being widely viewed as an endorsement of Jeffrey Donaldson’s campaign to lead the DUP, former first minister Peter Robinson has said the party must avoid appointing a leader who “moves to the edges” of public opinion.
Now a columnist with the Belfast News Letter, Robinson’s intervention in the race to lead the DUP will be a setback for Edwin Poots, who has taken a number of controversial stances on a range of social issues.
Robinson, who led the DUP before Arlene Foster took over, said the Fermanagh woman’s departure had been “brutal and publicly humiliating”, whilst the current campaign risked damaging the party’s reputation.
Mr Robinson wrote: “The DUP will not be the largest political party if it sheds elements of its support base.
“There is no viable alternative unionist party capable of gathering support from a wide cross-section of the public.
“The DUP from the latter stages of Ian Paisley’s leadership broadened its base and with it the party’s appeal. This necessitates leading the party from the centre of unionism and not its extremes.
“Move to the edges and you lop off an important portion of people at the other end of the party spectrum. This is the route to minority status. It’s not rocket science.
“If the principle of leading from the centre is important for gaining and keeping party support, it is even more critical for maintaining support for the Union.
“The retention of the Union is entirely dependent on the widest and broadest level of support – well beyond, but including, those who support what detractors call the hardcore old-DUP message.
“Nobody should conflate a central unionist stance with a soft unionist stance.
“When Ian Paisley led the DUP to becoming the largest party it was not on the basis of being soft.”
Gregory Campbell MP and MLAs Paul Frew and Paula Bradley are also running to succeed Nigel Dodds as deputy leader of the DUP.
Robinson however warned about the potential for “guerilla attacks” by competing factions to undermine the party’s credibility.
“What would be highly dangerous would be the insertion of peaky blinders manoeuvres into a party contest,” he wrote.
“Organised third-party social media attacks, negative briefings and fake information should have no part of a contest between colleagues. There are sadly early signs of the deployment of such tactics.
“While it was no real shock that there were members who felt it was time to see new leadership, the brutal and publicly humiliating manner of Arlene’s dismissal will, on its own, have created difficulties for a new leader trying to unify the party.
“Yet, the debris left on the landscape if the campaign is conducted using guerrilla attacks will potentially cause irreparable damage. So real caution is needed.
“If not handled properly, differing opinion can lead to division and division can lead to a split. Unionism cannot afford that and may not recover from it.”
The race between Poots and Donaldson will be decided by the party’s 8 MPs and 28 MLAs next Friday.