N Ireland’s main British unionist party to choose new leader

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FILE – In this file photo dated Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019, Northern Irish lawmakers, from left, Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster, with party members Jeffrey Donaldson and Emma Littele-Pengelly, at the party’s annual conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland’s largest British unionist party is choosing a new leader Friday May 14, 2021, in a contest between Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots and lawmaker Jeffrey Donaldson, with only 36 eligible voters and the result due late Friday afternoon. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, FILE)

LONDON (AP) — Northern Ireland’s largest British unionist party was choosing a new leader Friday, in a contest with two candidates and only 36 voters.

The Democratic Unionist Party, senior partner in Northern Ireland’s Catholic-Protestant power-sharing government, was choosing a replacement for Arlene Foster, who quit as leader and first minister last month amid recriminations over the impact of Brexit.

Only the party’s eight lawmakers in the British Parliament and 26 Northern Ireland Assembly members can vote in the contest between Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots and lawmaker Jeffrey Donaldson. The result is due late Friday afternoon.

A party rooted in the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church, the DUP opposed Northern Ireland’s 1999 peace accord, but later became reconciled to it and agreed to share power with the Irish Republican Army-linked party Sinn Fein.

The power-sharing relationship has often been rocky, and the Belfast administration was suspended for almost three years from 2017 after it collapsed over a botched green energy project.

Britain’s economic split from the European Union at the end of 2020 has further shaken the political balance in Northern Ireland, a part of the U.K. where some people identify as British and some as Irish.

Post-Brexit trade rules have imposed customs and border checks on some goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. The arrangement was designed to avoid checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland, an EU member, because an open Irish border has helped underpin the peace process that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.

The new arrangements have angered Northern Ireland’s British unionists, who say the new checks amount to a border in the Irish Sea, weaken ties with the rest of the U.K. and could bolster calls for Irish reunification.

Tensions over the new rules were a contributing factor to a week of street violence in Northern Ireland cities last month that saw youths pelt police with bricks, fireworks and firebombs.

Foster faced the wrath of party members for backing the divorce agreement that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson struck with the EU. She quit amid a party push to oust her, saying she would remain as DUP leader until May 28 and as first minister until the end of June.

Of the two contenders to replace her, Donaldson is considered a pragmatist. Poots is a Christian fundamentalist and believer in creationism whose conservative views on social issues echo those of the DUP’s founder, the late Rev. Ian Paisley, but are far outside the U.K. political mainstream.

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